Divine Omnipotence – February 2002

Question: Is God almighty?

Publication Month: February 2002

Dr. Cobb’s Response

The question of God’s omnipotence arises for individuals whenever they encounter personal injustice and meaningless suffering. The question arises collectively when there are public events that bring home to the public the dimensions of evil in history. The September 11 destruction of the World Trade Towers was an event of that sort. People ask why God caused this or allowed it to happen.

The answer of process theology is, of course, that God’s power is not of the sort that prevents people from doing evil things. God calls and seeks to persuade. But this does not keep us from committing crimes. Far from it.

Furthermore, God does not even prevent people from supposing that they are doing good when in fact they are doing evil. To us this is obvious in the case of those who gave their lives in order to harm us. They were committed idealists. To others it is obvious that the United States often inflicts great suffering on people in “developing” countries for the sake blocking the spread of Communism or making the world safe for growth through corporate investment. These are ideals to which many Americans are deeply committed and in whose service we are willing to harm others.

God does call the Muslim terrorists to broaden their horizons so that they will understand more clearly what they are doing and subordinate their limited ideals to that of the well being of human kind and the Earth. God similarly calls Americans. God’s call is not without effect, but it is not decisive. Most of what happens in the world is shaped by idolatry, that is, by devotion to lesser goods or “gods.”

To many Christians this sounds like heresy. They believe that the doctrine that God is almighty is at the heart of Christian faith. To understand God’s power as “only” the power of empathy and of liberating, persuasive, and empowering love, they think, is to abandon the Christian conviction that God is in total control. Many who have rejected Christianity share the belief that the Christian God is identical with the Almighty. For them this Christian teaches justifies their rejection of Christianity.

There can be no doubt that attributing this kind of power to God has been common in the tradition and remains common in the churches to this day. It underlies the question: “Why did God let that evil take place?” It also underlies a certain assurance that, in spite of all the contrary evidence, no matter how viciously we behave, everything will come out right in the end.

The term “Almighty” has been central to popular Christian thinking. Popular thought does not draw out the consistent implications of this idea, that is, that human beings are powerless. Indeed, it is quick to hold people responsible for their actions and to blame them for their sins, in spite of the supposition that God controls everything. But the point here is that, whatever the theoretical problems it engenders, the belief that God is almighty is central to the thinking of many Christians.

Indeed, among the words sometimes substituted for God, “almighty” is by far the most common. Sometimes God is named the Eternal or the Creator. But far more prayers are addressed to “Almighty God.” Far less often do we address “all-loving God” or “merciful God” or “all-knowing God” or “gracious God” despite the fact that love, mercy, knowledge, and grace are far more prominent in New Testament teaching than power.

Most people suppose that in affirming this attribute and singling it out for emphasis they are faithful to the Bible. They are wrong, but this is hardly their fault. It is the result of a fateful decision made by those who translated the Hebrew Bible into Greek. These translators found in Genesis and Job extensive references to El Shaddai or just Shaddai. This was a proper name for a god who was originally, we may assume, not identical with Yahweh. Yahweh they translated as the Lord. What were they to do with Shaddai?

To treat Shaddai as a proper name would be to suggest that a god other than Yahweh was accepted by Israel. But long before then, Israel had become very clear that it had but one God. The translators solved their problem by substituting “God Almighty” for El Shaddai and “the Almighty” for Shaddai. The reader then assumes that this is a way of speaking of the same God who is otherwise called the Lord. Because of this decision, readers of the Bible are led to assume that it teaches divine omnipotence.

Was there any linguistic reason to choose “almighty”? The answer is negative. Of course, to be a god was to be powerful. But at the time the stories of El Shaddai were originally composed, the power of this god would certainly not have been supposed to be absolute. Quite the contrary. There is nothing in the name that even points to power. Some scholars think the most probably original meaning was “the Breasted One”. The decision to emphasize power reflects theological beliefs prevalent at the time of the translation and has nothing to do with meanings in the text itself.

To this day, almost all translators have followed the Greek translation. Even the New Revised Standard Version does so. Each time it provides a footnote to state the Hebrew for which “Almighty” is substituted. But it does nothing to discourage the reader from supposing that the Hebrew text teaches divine omnipotence. If curious readers check the “Dictionary/Concordance” in the back and looks up “almighty,” they find it capitalized and followed by “the”. The meaning provided is “God, who is all powerful.” References are provided to the passages in which the Hebrew test speak of Shaddai. There is no hint of the arbitrariness of this substitution. It seems that even the fine scholars who work together to produce our most reliable translations do not want to inform readers that the scriptures in their original languages do not speak of God as Almighty.

The harm done by this doctrine has been enormous. Millions reject Christianity because of it. Those who stay are encouraged to have unrealistic expectations. They are also encouraged to think that controlling everything is a supreme virtue and to emulate this virtue in finite ways. Despite Jesus’ revelation of a very different kind of divine power and Paul’s celebration of God’s weakness, the church continues to worship controlling power and even to remake Jesus in that image.

Challenging the hold of this idea on the mind of the church is not a minor task. It arouses anger. But if we are faithful to the scriptures and especially to the revelation in Jesus, we should not hold back. Process theology has particular capabilities here and, therefore, particular responsibilities.