This weekend, I attended a young adult retreat where the central topic was apologetics, and I was reminded yet again why apologetics is not the field for me. There was one discussion that really got me thinking, though. As usually happens at these sorts of events, the question of evil came up. It’s the most relevant and difficult topic in apologetics, and it always, always gets brought up.
The speaker framed the question this way: How can God be both all-powerful and all good?
Thinking about the question of evil like this piqued my interest. I’ve addressed the topic in a previous blog post, and I still stand by the answer I laid out there. But hearing the question asked this way led me to a different approach, and I’d like to share it with you. Here it is:
Maybe it’s time for us to admit that God isn’t all-powerful.
I understand that’s a bold, controversial statement, and I hope you don’t misunderstand me. I’m not attacking the nature of God here, or even the traditional Christian understanding of God as being omnipotent (that is, possessing ultimate power). I just think that we sometimes get so caught up in theological abstractions that we forget to actually look at the living God we serve. And that’s when we get ourselves into trouble.
The “all-powerful v. all good” question is an example of that. We’ve been preaching the doctrine of omnipotence for so long that we’ve forgotten what it’s all about, or we’ve at least allowed it to become misrepresented to those outside the faith. The common understanding of this doctrine is that it means that God can do whatever he wants. And if God can do whatever he wants but chooses not to stop something evil from happening, then it only makes sense that God is at least in some sense responsible for the evil itself. That’s the theological corner we’ve backed ourselves into.
But in reality, omnipotence refers to the nature of God, not to the way he interacts with the world. Sure, God in his nature possesses all power and the ability to do anything he likes, but that’s not the way he’s chosen to be in relation to his creation. Because in the very act of creating the world and giving free will to humanity, God was choosing to give up his omnipotence for something he deemed better: the potential of a loving relationship with his creation.
Here’s how that works: As we all know, love cannot be forced. Robots cannot love, because love requires choice. In order for love to be real and a true relationship to be established between persons, each party must have the option to say no. That’s the only way the, “Yes,” has any value.
God knew this before he created the world, back when he was able to practice his omnipotence fully. And he very well could have created a planet full of mindless drones to praise him for all of time. But that’s not what he wanted. He wanted to take the loving relationship that already existed within the Trinity and extend it. God wanted to love someone and be loved by someone outside himself, and so he made a choice.
God chose to give humanity free will. And in doing so, he gave up a good deal of his power. Now, he can’t force us to do anything. He can’t force us to love him. He can’t force us to love each other. He can’t force us to do good. Because if he did, it wouldn’t mean anything. It would all be for nothing.
And as we’ve discussed before, when we use the free will we’ve been given to rebel against God and his will, there are natural consequences, and we call those consequences “evil.” Could God have potentially made a world without those consequences? Sure, but then we wouldn’t really have free will. If one’s choices have no consequence, how can one be truly considered free?
Far too often, we downplay the sacrifice that God made just in the act of creating us. In order to do so, he had to set aside a part of his nature. He had to willingly limit himself and his power in order to give us a chance to have a relationship with him. And now, he works through and relies on us—us!—to accomplish his purposes in the world.
In creating us, God took a risk.
In creating us, God made himself vulnerable to pain, disappointment, and rejection.
In creating us, God gave up his total omnipotence. And if that isn’t one of the greatest acts of love in all of history, I don’t know what is.
God is all-powerful in the cosmic, eternal, big-picture sense. But in the particular, present, minute circumstances that we find ourselves in, God is limited by his own choice. Could he break his own rules, revoke our free will, and take away our suffering? Sure, God could do anything. He is God, after all. But he won’t, because he loves us and wants more than anything to be in relationship with us, a relationship that requires we have free will.
We know that this limitation of God’s power is only for a time. Even in light of human free will, he is still working history towards his perfect plan for its end. He’s powerful enough to do that. And in the end, God will once again rule fully omnipotent over a perfect universe. Only this time, we’ll be there, surrendered completely to his will for all of time. He’ll be his full self, and we’ll be all that he created us to be.
But for now, we live in an imperfect world ruled by a God who is waiting for us to turn towards him. So when people ask, “How can God be all-powerful and all good?” we can simply answer, “He isn’t all-powerful, at least not in the way you’re thinking. At least not yet.” Then we have an opportunity to share the immense love of God and the way it manifested in our creation, his self-limitation, and ultimately in our salvation by Jesus Christ. And that sounds like a pretty good answer to the question of evil to me.