Back when Isaac Newton reigned supreme in the world of physics, it was popular among scientists and philosophers to think of the universe as a vast machine grinding along on an inevitable path that could be fully predicted into the distant future if its present state and motion could be fully described.
Then came the 20th century, and people like Max Planck, Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, and Erwin Schrödinger said, “Not so fast! There’s randomness and uncertainty built right into the structure of the universe!” Albert Einstein, who himself had a major part in unseating Newton as the final arbiter of the nature of physical reality, didn’t much like quantum theory precisely because of that element of random chance, prompting him to say famously that God “is not playing at dice.”
What do these new developments in physics say about God? If the universe is not machine-like and deterministic, but has uncertainty built right into it, doesn’t that mean God isn’t in control?
Some scientists and secular philosophers say that our recent discoveries about the nature of the universe show that there cannot be a God because the random, non-deterministic nature of quantum physics is incompatible with an omniscient and omnipotent Creator God.
But as a long-time fan of science, astronomy, and cosmology, my growing conviction is that God purposely designed the physical universe with a certain amount of randomness and freedom. In fact, I now think that a fully deterministic universe, with God as its puppetmaster, would be unable to achieve the goals for which God created it.
God is not a puppetmaster and dictator, controlling every move of every atom in the universe. Rather, God is an architect, manager, and friend to the universe and everything in it.
Human beings are non-deterministic
Though some people argue the opposite, it is clear to me that the human universe is not deterministic.
God created human beings with free will and freedom of choice. And if that freedom is real—as I believe it is—and not a mere illusion, then this means we can make choices that God does not decide and determine. Further, it means that our freely made choices change the course of events not only in time here in this world, but to eternity in the spiritual world.
This means that at least one segment of the created universe—humanity—is not deterministic, but has an element of “randomness” to it that God doesn’t control.
So why can’t other created things be non-deterministic?
If God can create one part of the universe non-deterministic, why can’t God create other parts of the universe that way, too? Why can’t God create the entire universe so that it is able to do things on its own initiative?
We are continually discovering that God’s creation is far more complex and intricate than we ever could have imagined before. Perhaps modern physics, with its quantum mechanics and uncertainty principle, is simply showing us that God is able to think and create in ways that go far beyond the old mechanistic determinism of Newton & Co.
The element of randomness and non-determinism that modern physics sees in the physical universe is an analog of the free will that God has given to human beings as a core element of our very humanity. And if quantum theory is correct, that randomness is just as fundamental to the physical universe as free will is to human beings.
Free will vs. God’s omniscience
The main argument against free will is that it is incompatible with God’s omniscience. Here’s how the argument goes:
If God is omniscient, then God knows everything that’s going to happen. And if God knows what’s going to happen, then God knows what I’m going to choose. So if God already knows what I’m going to choose, I don’t really have choice at all, because it’s all determined in God’s mind beforehand.
This argument has two fatal flaws:
- God does not see things beforehand. God sees things from outside of time.
- Knowing is not the same as causing.
To take the second first, I know that if I hold a book up in the air and let go of it, it will fall to the floor. But my knowledge doesn’t cause it to fall; gravity does. Similarly, God’s knowledge of what our choices will be does not mean God causes us to make those choices.
The first is a little trickier to wrap our minds around. We live our lives embedded in time and space here in the material universe, so it’s very hard for us to think outside of time and space. We think of an omniscient God as knowing things before they happen.
But that’s not how it works.
God simply sees all things that to us are past, present, and future from an eternal perspective outside of time. So God’s seeing things that to us are in the future doesn’t cause that future any more than my looking out the window and seeing a tree causes the tree to be there.
Our choices and actions unfold in time. God sees them all from outside of time.
We make the choices. God simply sees the choices we make.
Is God in control of the universe?
But if human beings, and the universe as a whole, can do things that God didn’t make them do, doesn’t this mean that God is not in control of the universe? Doesn’t it mean that God really isn’t omnipotent and all-powerful?
If we think that God being “in control” means that God minutely decides every single thing that happens in the universe, then God is not in control of the universe. Humans, at least, have free will, and can decide to do things that God doesn’t want them to do. And it now appears that the physical universe, too, can act in random ways.
But if we’re going to expand our understanding of the universe, then we must also expand our understanding of God’s power.
What is omnipotence?
In the old mechanistic view, “omnipotence” means that God decides every single thing that happens in the universe. In traditional Christianity, this idea has led some churches, especially Calvinist ones, to say that humans don’t have free will. These churches say that God had already decided before Creation which of us will go to heaven and which will go to hell—and that there’s nothing we can do about it.
Meanwhile, skeptics and atheists like to propose “omnipotence paradoxes” such as, “Can God create a rock so heavy that he can’t lift it?” They think these so-called paradoxes are logical proofs that an omnipotent God can’t possibly exist.
But these ways of thinking are based on a very flat and limited view of omnipotence.
Here is a better view:
God’s omnipotence means that God is able to accomplish everything God wants to accomplish.
The so-called “omnipotence paradoxes” assume that omnipotence must include the ability to do contradictory things. But as Jesus said:
If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. (Mark 3:24–25)
Doing stupid, contradictory, and self-defeating things is not omnipotence, but impotence.
Real power, and real omnipotence, is the ability to get things done.
And if one of the things God wants to get done is to create beings that have some freedom and a sense of autonomy from God, then that is part of God’s omnipotence.
The power to create a non-deterministic universe
The old way of thinking about God binds God to obeying our limited human conceptions of how the universe works, and what “power” and “omnipotence” mean.
But God is far beyond our human conceptions of things. And God does not require our understanding or our intellectual assent to go about creating the universe in the way that God wants to create it, in order to accomplish the purposes God has in mind.
What if an integral part of God’s purpose involves creating a universe that is not deterministic, but has a will of its own, and is able to act on its own initiative? What if God wants us to have free will, and wants the rest of the universe to have its own type of freedom, too? Who are we to say, “No, God! You have to control everything!!!”
God doesn’t want to control everything
There is a very good reason God’s omnipotence is not what we commonly think it is: controlling every single thing in the universe.
God’s omnipotence flows from God’s love. And God’s love wants to love other beings outside of itself. In other words, God’s love is not inward-looking and self-absorbed, but outward-looking and interpersonal.
If God were to control and direct every single thing in the universe right down to the smallest details, the universe would be a mere extension of God. It would be part of God. It would be God.
There would still be no other being for God to love and be in relationship with.
So God created beings that can act on their own initiative, from a freedom that is a core part of their being. God created beings that God doesn’t entirely control because God doesn’t want to control everything. Instead, God wants to be in a relationship with the beings God has created.
A universe with a will of its own
For the universe, and humans in it, to be in relationship with God, and not just an extension of God, they must have a will of their own. That is the core element that makes them not God.
This “will of their own” reaches its peak in human beings. We have a conscious moral and spiritual free will that enables us to think, feel, and act as we choose. No, we’re not radically free. But we do have a zone of freedom within the boundaries set by our genetics and environment. And within that zone of freedom, we can make choices that determine the course of our life.
Animals do not have the spiritual awareness and moral free will that humans have. But they do have a certain freedom to act that doesn’t seem to be entirely determined by instinct and environment. Pet-owners know that each pet has a particular character and personality. Each one seeks out the things it likes, avoids the things it doesn’t like, and does things—sometimes surprising things—that express its own individual character.
In the plant realm, the ability to live and grow from a seed into a plant, each of its own kind, and to respond to the conditions of soil, warmth, and sunlight, expresses something of that free will and freedom of choice.
Even in the mineral, or non-living realm, the uncertainty principle and the basic randomness of the underlying physical structure of reality is an analog of human free will. Why does a crystal grow this way instead of that way? It may not be quite as deterministic as scientists previously thought.
God’s sovereignty over the universe is not one that involves God dictating and determining every last move that the universe makes. Instead, it involves designing a universe that acts on its own initiative, while drawing on God’s power and God’s design in doing so.
God stays engaged with the universe
This does not mean that God just “winds up” the universe and then lets it run independently, as Deism holds. Rather, God gives the universe a certain amount of freedom, and yet stays in continual relationship with the universe as it moves forward with that freedom.
The universe carries out God’s will, not because it is deterministically programmed to do so, but because the universe has the capability to do so given to it by God, and it exercises that capability on its own initiative, but still drawing on God’s power and God’s design—or more abstractly, God’s love and wisdom—to do it.
Without God giving the universe that power and guidance, the universe could do nothing at all, nor could it even stay in existence. God maintains the entire universe in existence from one nanosecond to the next by flowing in with God’s love, which powers the universe, and God’s wisdom, on which the universe draws to guide itself as it moves forward.
God as CEO
To use an example from contemporary human society, consider the CEO of a company in relation to all of the company’s managers and workers. The CEO sets the goals, tone, and direction of the company. The managers and workers draw on those goals, that tone, and that direction, acting on their own initiative to carry out the company’s goals as set from the top.
Without a CEO at its head, the company would fall into division, disorder, and chaos.
But if the CEO were to personally do and run every single thing throughout the entire company, its ability to provide its goods and services would be severely limited.
Companies need managers and employees who can understand what the company is doing—or at least what needs to be done in their particular corner of the company—and take the initiative to get that work done.
God runs the universe more like a CEO than like a puppetmaster or dictator.
God creates other beings to love
In creating the universe with a certain independence of will, thought, and motion, God has created a universe that God can love as another being who is not God.
If there is randomness and indeterminacy in the universe, as physicists now think, that’s not a flaw in the system or a strike against God’s omnipotence. Rather, it is a key part of God getting something done.
And what God wanted to get done was to create a universe with beings in it who can be in a mutual and freely chosen relationship with God. This means they can’t be fully determined by God, but must be able to act on their own initiative, with a certain amount of freedom, in order to have a self that is distinct from God’s self, from which they can be in relationship with God.
Creating by putting limits on what comes from God
According to Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772), the way that God created the universe as an entity distinct from God was to put limits on substances that flow out from God’s infinite substance. In the very act of imposing these limits or boundaries, God created something that was no longer God because it was finite, and not infinite as God is.
Here is how Swedenborg puts it in a very philosophical passage:
There is an idea in circulation that finite things are not large enough to hold the Infinite and therefore they could not be vessels for the Infinite. On the contrary, points that I made in my works on creation show that God first made his infinity finite in the form of substances put out from himself. The first sphere that surrounds him consists of those substances, and forms the sun of the spiritual world. By means of that sun, he then completed the remaining spheres even to the farthest one, which consists of inert elements. He increasingly limited the world, then, stage by stage. I lay this out here to appease human reason, which never rests until it knows how something was done. (True Christianity #33, italics added)
Gotta love that final line. That pesky human mind! Always wanting to figure things out!
But the main point here is that the very act of creation was one of putting limits on substances that came from God. This caused them no longer to be God, but to be the created universe instead. And putting limits on those substances flowing out from God so that they are no longer God also means that God made the created universe not to be under God’s total and minute control, but rather to be a semi-independent being that can act on its own initiative.
It is only semi-independent because no created thing can exist without God continually holding it in existence, and yet God gave created things a will of their own, from which they act with some level of freedom and self-determination.
Humans are the fullest expression of God’s love
In the segment of the universe we know about, humans are the only beings that are consciously free and in a conscious relationship with God. That’s why humans are the only beings who fully achieve God’s purpose in creating a universe that can be in relationship with God.
Because humans are the only created beings who have the higher levels of spiritual reality that give us the ability know about God and spiritual reality. In order to be in a fully mutual relationship with God, you really do have to be able to think about God and have a conscious relationship with God. Humans also have the highest level of spiritual reality, which gives us the ability to love God. The ability to know and love God is precisely what makes it possible for us to be in an eternal relationship with God in heaven.
The lower levels of the created universe—animal, plant, and mineral—each have their own analogs of freedom that enable them to act with a more limited self-determination within their own domain. They, too, are beings distinct from God and in a relationship with God, even if that relationship is not a conscious one.
Nature acts on its own initiative to do God’s will
What I am suggesting is that God specifically designed the universe to act on its own initiative, according to its own “will” and its own rules as given to it by God, and that this is a necessary part of accomplishing God’s eternal purposes.
And yet God is continually present with all of those atoms, in relationship with them, and giving them a direction and goal that prompts them to act on their own initiative to carry out God’s overall plan. In other words, it’s not a matter of the universe spinning out of God’s control. Rather, it’s a matter of the universe acting on its own initiative in such a way that it carries out God’s goals.
That is the true beauty and power of God’s omnipotence in relationship with the created universe. God doesn’t have to be a puppetmaster pulling all of the strings that make the universe dance. God has created a universe that is able and willing to accomplish God’s purposes by acting from the forces and according to the laws with which God created it.
The universe and its many and varied parts is like those managers and workers who act on their own initiative, according to their own knowledge and experience, to provide their company’s products and services to its customers according to the vision and goals set by the CEO.
What about natural disasters?
This throws some light on the perennial question of God’s presence and role in natural disasters.
Is God sitting in some heavenly control room pushing a near infinity of buttons at near infinite speeds to bring about each specific earthquake, tornado, hurricane, or other natural disaster that happens on earth?
I don’t think so.
Rather, God designed the universe with a certain set of laws and a certain level of autonomy so that the universe acts according to its own “internalized” rules, and from its own freedom or randomness, to produce various events, including natural disasters.
However, even if God doesn’t personally orchestrate every natural disaster, God is present in those natural disasters, using them to carry out God’s greater purposes—which involve our eternal happiness and wellbeing.
As terrible as natural disasters are for the human communities that experience them, they also bring about some of the greatest and most heroic human actions in giving help and aid to our fellow human beings. As we survey the death toll and mobilize to give aid to the survivors, we develop a deeper sense of compassion and a greater dedication to the welfare and happiness of our fellow travelers here on earth.
And that is one of the ways we grow into angels of heaven.
What God designed the universe to do
God designed this universe with a specific purpose in mind.
That purpose is to provide a setting in which we can grow, through the many challenges that nature and human society throw at us, into beings of love, wisdom, compassion, and the ability to care for our fellow human beings and for the world in which we live.
When, through the trials and challenges of life, we choose to give love, compassion, and service to the people and the world around us, we are acting on our own initiative to carry out God’s primary purpose in creating the universe. That purpose is to build an eternal community of angels in heaven who live to love and serve God and one another and to give each other joy and happiness, each in our own unique way.
(Note: This post is based on a comment or two following up on the article, “Are Deaths from Natural Disasters an Unavoidable Side-Effect of God’s Creation?” Many thanks to readers Rami, Richard Neer, and Alex, who sparked the discussion and asked the questions that prompted me to crystallize these thoughts in my mind and write them down.)
For further reading:
- Containers for God
- If God Already Knows What We’re Going to Do, How Can We Have Free Will?
- How did God Create the Universe? Was the World Really Created in Six Days?
- On Pluto, Atoms, and Other Things (such as Heaven) that Just Keep Getting More Complex
- How can we have Faith when So Many Bad Things happen to So Many Good People? Part 1
- Is Hurricane Sandy God’s Punishment on the Wicked?
- God Is Unconvincing To Smart Folks? – Part 1
- Heaven, Regeneration, and the Meaning of Life on Earth