(This is Part 2 of my response to the article, “God Is Unconvincing To Smart Folks,” by J. H. McKenna. For Part 1, click here.)
Points 3, 4, and 5 of Dr. McKenna’s article deal with three key characteristics of God: God’s omniscience, God’s omnibenevolence, and God’s omnipotence.
3. God as all-knowing is unconvincing
Under this heading, Dr. McKenna writes:
Does God know terror, fear, pain, indigestion, menstruation, sexual attraction, sexual climax, pregnancy? Does God know the last number? No one is all knowing. Again, a nonsensical claim.
So God really is just a slob like one of us, with all of our limitations?
(And hmm . . . more issues about God and sex . . .)
Yes, God does know all of these things, if only because God fully knows every one of us—in fact, much more fully than we know ourselves—and is fully present in every one of our experiences, whether or not we are aware of it.
We don’t need to get down into the nitty-gritty of exactly how all of these things might exist within the nature of God. We wouldn’t be able to understand most of it anyway because our minds are finite whereas God is infinite. Suffice it to say that everything in the created universe is, in one way or another, an expression of the nature of God. The things we experience don’t exist in the same form in God as they do in us. After all, our reality is limited to the physical and the spiritual, whereas God exists on the divine level of reality. But all of these things do exist in divine form in God.
However, it is also important to understand that much of what we experience, though ultimately derived from God, is a distorted version of its original version in God. We’ll get to the problem of evil in a moment, too.
But before we get there, here is another important concept Emanuel Swedenborg offers that makes it possible to understand these things in a clearer light: “Correspondence.”
The Latin word Swedenborg uses is correspondentia. Over the years, translators of Swedenborg who haven’t just taken the easy way out and translated it with the English cognate “correspondence” or “correspondences” have struggled mightily to find an English word that really captures Swedenborg’s meaning.
Basically, “correspondence” is the way that divine realities express or manifest themselves on the spiritual level of reality, and spiritual realities express or manifest themselves on the physical level. A “corresponding” thing at a lower level expresses on its own level the same qualities and functions that its corresponding reality at the higher level does.
One way to literally picture this is to consider a two-dimensional photograph of a three-dimensional scene. The photograph isn’t actually the original scene. It does not capture the full three-dimensional solidity and experience of the original scene. But it does provide a faithful reproduction in two-dimensions, from a particular angle and perspective, of the original three-dimensional reality.
Here is a more human example: A hug corresponds to love between two human beings. Love is a spiritual force that brings two (or more) people close to one another in heart and mind. A hug expresses that love in bodily form by bringing people physically close to one another. The hug expresses or manifests on the physical level the love between the people that exists on the emotional and spiritual level.
This can help us to understand that God does know all of these things. But God knows on a divine level of reality all of the things that we know on the spiritual and material levels of reality.
God remains connected to all of God’s creation
God is the creator and source of everything that exists. And God didn’t create the universe from nothing (ex nihilo) as traditional Christian theology holds, but out of God’s own substance. God did this by spinning out created reality from God’s own reality, and putting limits and boundaries on it. This distinguishes finite, created reality from the infinite, uncreated reality of God, making it non-God. (The universe is not pantheistic.)
And yet, God does not withdraw from what God has created. God continues to be intimately connected with everything God has created through the means of correspondences, or the relationship between divine reality and the various created levels of reality. This means that God is quite literally present in every point in time and space throughout the entire universe, from within.
That is how God is all-knowing. God remains directly connected with everything God has created, so that God is fully aware of everything that exists and takes place in the universe.
Remember, God is an infinite being, not a limited and finite one like us slobs here on earth. Knowing everything is not a problem for an infinite being. For more on this, please see: “How did God Create the Universe? Was the World Really Created in Six Days?”
4. God as all-good is unconvincing
God is all-good and yet made a world that is bloody red in tooth and claw? God is all good and made predators and prey? (A lion might love the arrangement, but the hapless gazelle and bunny rabbit do not.) God is all-good but made the talon and the fang? God is all good but made 50,000 pathogens that are trying to kill us and the animals? God is all good and made diseases? What about all the suffering of animals and humans? In human affairs, would we call a person ‘good’ who sits by as a six year old boy beats a two year old girl and her pet kitten to death? No, any good person would intervene. And yet God has allowed a near infinity of pain and suffering to exist. Either God is not all good (or not all powerful) or God does not exist: these are the only explanations for the high degree of animal and human suffering on earth. More likely, there’s no God.
No, these are not the only explanations.
As I’m sure Dr. McKenna is aware, for thousands of years theists of various perspectives have exercised their minds on the issue of God’s benevolence in the face of our experience of evil, suffering, and pain. In fact, it’s such a big, heavily discussed topic that it has its own fancy theological and philosophical term: “Theodicy.” Suffice it to say that some Very Smart Folks have come up with various ways of harmonizing God’s all-good, all-powerful nature with the reality of evil.
Obviously we don’t have time or space to recapitulate the vast literature on this subject here in this article. You can read some of the biggies at the “Theodicy” link just above. I have also written extensively on the subject here on Spiritual Insights for Everyday Life. For starters:
- If God is Love, Why all the Pain and Suffering?
- How does God Govern Humankind? Is God Actively Involved in our Lives?
- How can we have Faith when So Many Bad Things happen to So Many Good People? Part 1
About violence in nature, I would especially direct your attention to Part 2 of that last article, which discusses this point: “2. Violence, pain, and suffering exist in the universe because the universe was created for us.”
Short version: In order for humans to be free, and therefore actually human and capable of engaging in real relationships with one another and especially with God, God must allow an alternative to the all-good nature of God. The only possible alternative is evil.
God doesn’t actually create evil. We humans do that when we choose not to be in a good and loving relationship with God and with one another. When we do this, we twist the good that God creates into something evil. And if we didn’t have the choice and ability to do this, we would be mere robots, or would be just like the lower animals. We would not be human. And we could not possibly have eternal life, either. For that, we must have a self-aware spirit that is capable of having a conscious relationship with God.
Yes, there is terrible evil, pain, and suffering here on earth. But keep in mind that it is all temporary. The pain and suffering that we experience here on earth will come to an end. And assuming that we haven’t freely chosen a type of life that involves inflicting pain and suffering on others—which inevitably boomerangs back onto ourselves—once we move on to the spiritual world that pain and suffering will all be behind us. But we will keep the compassion, patience, and depth of character that we developed through experiencing it. As Psalm 30:5 assures us:
Weeping may linger for the night,
but joy comes with the morning.
About violence in nature: That’s not evil. It’s just the way nature works. In particular, the predator-prey relationship is essential to the health of the prey species just as it is to the life of the predator species. The more we study nature, the more we realize that it is a finely calibrated system. Yes, there is suffering in nature. But most of it is mercifully short-lived. And it leads to stronger species and a stronger ecosystem overall.
Further, without the great cataclysms in which our earth formed, and which periodically changed its face in massive events such as planetary collisions and major meteor strikes, this planet would not even be capable of supporting complex life forms such as lions, gazelles, bunny rabbits, and human beings.
Besides, God didn’t create us humans to be weak and over-sensitive. God created us to develop strength—physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual—through facing the challenges and struggles of life. A life with no pain and suffering might provide us with an easy ride, but we would be physical and moral weaklings.
So let’s not be crybabies about nature being “red in tooth and claw,” and about not having everything handed to us on a silver platter. People who grow up in the lap of luxury with no struggles and no worries tend to grow into vapid, superficial, self-indulgent, and rather useless adults.
God has greater things in mind for us. That’s why God gives us a world in which we must struggle against terrible pain, suffering, hardship, and loss. It is through this very struggle that we develop into truly human beings.
Of course, in this brief space we can only scratch the surface of these truly huge questions. The three articles linked above dig deeper into the issue of pain and suffering in the face of God’s all-good nature.
If all you want to do is gripe and complain about the unfairness of it all, and reject God because God is SO UNFAIR!!! then I’ve got nothing for you. If you want to believe that life sucks and then you die, that’s your choice.
But if you want real answers to these questions, read the articles linked above, including the full four-part article on bad things happening to good people. If you want real answers, you’re going to have to spend real time and do the work required to get them. No excuses!
5. God as all-powerful is unconvincing
In human affairs, would we call a person ‘powerfully strong’ who sits by as a six year old boy beats a two year old girl and her pet kitten to death? No, if you are powerfully strong (and decent), you stop the boy killer. And yet the all-powerful God has allowed a near infinity of animal and human pain and suffering to exist. Either God is not all powerful (or not all good) or God does not exist: these are the only explanations for the high degree of animal and human suffering on earth. Also, to point out the contradiction of saying anyone possesses ‘all-power,’ skeptics ask: Can God make a rock so heavy that God can’t lift it? Again, ‘all-power’ is a nonsensical claim.
No, these are not the only explanations.
If Dr. McKenna has spent his career studying and lecturing on the history of religious ideas, he should know that. (Or maybe he does know just how flimsy these standard arguments of the skeptics actually are?) But most of this point is the same basic argument as was made in the previous point, which I covered just above. So we’ll move on the skeptics’ question, “Can God make a rock so heavy that God can’t lift it?”
This is a classic example of the “omnipotence paradox.” And once again, this type of paradox has been dealt with extensively by philosophers and theologians for thousands of years. For some of the major discussions of it, feel free to read the linked article.
Here is the short version from a Swedenborgian Christian perspective:
“Omnipotence,” as it applies to God, does not mean the ability to do just any old thing—even contradictory and destructive things. Rather, it means that God has the ability, without limit, to do everything that God wants to do. This flows naturally from the aforementioned all-good, or omnibenevolent, nature of God.
We must also understand that evil has no reality of its own. Its “reality” is simply a twisting, corruption, and destruction of the true, self-existent reality of God’s love, goodness, and power. Another way of saying this is that evil is merely the destruction and negation of good. In that sense, evil doesn’t actually have any power to do anything. Its nature is to undo things.
The omnipotence of God is to do things, not to undo things. If God were to oppose God’s own actions by undoing everything God does, that would not be omnipotence, but complete impotence. It would mean that God couldn’t do anything at all. As Jesus said:
Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand. (Matthew 12:25)
God is not a house divided against itself.
The example of God creating a stone so heavy that God can’t lift it betrays a basic misunderstanding of the nature of omnipotence. Ditto for arguments about God creating a jail that God can’t break out of, creating a triangle whose angles don’t add up to 180 degrees, and so on. God doesn’t violate God’s own laws. That would mean violating God’s own nature and actually destroying God’s omnipotence.
Omnipotence doesn’t mean doing contradictory things. Omnipotence means having full power to accomplish definite purposes, which are God’s eternal purposes. If I sit around all day arm wrestling myself, that’s not omnipotence, no matter how big my “guns” are.
Fighting against oneself accomplishes nothing.
God doesn’t waste time creating stones too heavy to lift. God is interested in getting things done. And God’s omnipotence means that God can do everything God wants to do.
Points 6–11 deal with people’s experiences of and testimonies about God, and with divine revelation. We’ll take them up in Part 3.
Actually, I have come across an an answer to the Omnipotence paradox that is quite clever. If we take the view that God can do anything at all, including solving paradoxes that should be impossible, then God can give Himself the ability to solve those problems.
For the sake of this idea, let’s pretend that God can take form with physical traits (body, hands, muscles, etc.). For the rock question, God can create a rock that is so heavy that He cannot lift it. However, God can THEN give Himself the ability to become more powerful than He was a moment earlier, and thus lift the rock. The same can be said about the jail. God can create a jail so secure that even He cannot break out, but He can then just give Himself the ability to break out.
This can apply to some of the other paradoxes:
*God could create a being even greater than Himself, but could then give Himself even more power to overcome that being and be, in the words of Pokemon, the best there ever was.
*God could create a way for Himself, an immortal being, to die, but, for obvious reasons, does not go through with it.
*God could create a pepper so spicy that He could not eat it without His tongue dissolving, but then gives Himself the ability to eat the pepper and still have an intact tongue.
Now, this idea does have two issues:
1. It assumes that God is a being who can change,evolve, or grow. Whether that is true or not is ultimately not knowable, because if God really is perfect in every single way and does not change because there is no aspect that needs improving, then this theory doesn’t work.
2. It creates the paradox of a being of infinite power granting themselves even more infinite power, which is silly and pointless in the first place,
Overall, though, it’s the best answer I’ve come across to the omnipotence paradox.
Thanks for your thoughts.
However, in my view the whole thing is an effort to respond to a rather silly set of hypothetical questions that assume a rather silly and inaccurate understanding of what omnipotence is.
I added the silly video of the guy arm wrestling himself to give a visual representation of just how silly these so-called “omnipotence paradoxes” really are. Fighting against oneself is not omnipotence, but weakness and self-limitation. Omnipotence is about getting things done, not about creating barriers against oneself getting things done.
Basically, I think these “omnipotence paradoxes” are non-issues once you understand the real meaning of omnipotence.
I’ve really enjoyed this series, but I do wonder a bit about God violating his laws. What’s the difference between God making a rock so heavy he can’t lift it and God causing a virgin birth to take place? There does seem to be some distinction between the two, but what exactly is that distinction?
Thanks! Glad you enjoyed the series.
In answer to your question, the basic answer is that one accomplishes nothing, whereas the other accomplishes something.
God creating a rock heavier than God can lift does not accomplish any purpose, nor does it get anything useful or constructive done. It only creates a contradiction—which, as the article says, is an example of weakness, not of strength.
God causing a virgin birth to take place in the case of Jesus Christ is part of accomplishing God’s greatest purpose, which is the salvation of the human race through providing access to heaven for all who wish to enter there.
Though science doesn’t deal in purpose, God and spirit both do deal in purpose. Everything God does has a purpose, and each lesser purpose contributes to God’s greatest purpose, which is an eternal heaven from humanity. Scientists may believe in blind evolution unfolding for no purpose, according to no pattern, with no goal. But that is not how God operates. God’s power always involves God acting to accomplish specific purposes.
In terms of classical philosophy, God acts according to the sequence of “end, cause, and effect,” in which “end” is the purpose for which something is done, “cause” is the means by which something is done, and “effect” is the actual thing done. Compare the Four causes in Aristotelian thought.
A corollary is that a virgin birth does not actually violate God’s laws. We know this because there are many virgin births that occur naturally in nature. On this, see the article, “The Logic of Love: Why God became Jesus.” A human virgin birth is not something we have observed scientifically. However, given the occurrence of virgin births in lower species, we would have to classify it as an anomaly, not an impossibility.
In other words, although science regularly deals in what usually or almost always happens, something that rarely happens or that we have never observed happening isn’t necessarily impossible or a violation of God’s laws. Just extremely unusual, and in some cases unique.
Meanwhile, God creating a rock so heavy that God cannot lift it is internally contradictory, such that it is an impossibility. Like the other omnipotence paradoxes, it is not something that is simply extremely rare, and therefore an anomaly, or something that we’ve never observed, such that we’re skeptical that it can happen or exist. Rather, it is something that is impossible because it is self-contradictory.