Universalism and Omnipotence

I’ve been thinking about the coherence of divine attributes lately, particularly omnipotence. At the very least, it’s a counter-intuitive notion. This issue comes up, I think, with respect to universalism. Rob Bell recently incited some controversy with his book Love Wins, in which he suggests that all might be saved. Now, I haven’t read the book, so I’m not going to say much about it. However, I’ve heard Bell talk about it and he seems to base his view on an intuition about omnipotence: how could an omnipotent being (God) fail to get what he wants (the salvation of all)? The core intuition here seems to be that an omnipotent being can’t fail. At first blush, this seems right. But as a fine-grained analysis of omnipotence shows, this intuition might not be so obvious. Since this issue interests me, I’m going to use Bell’s intuition as a springboard to talk about omnipotence and tie it back to the subject of universalism.

Let’s think about the question: can an omnipotent being fail? At this point, we might recall the famous Stone Paradox, familiar to most undergraduate philosophy students. Can an omnipotent being create a stone so heavy that he cannot lift it? If one says ‘no’ then there’s something an omnipotent being can’t do, namely create the stone. If one says ‘yes’ then there’s something an omnipotent being can’t do, namely lift the stone. However, this isn’t necessarily a problem for omnipotence per se. After all, one of the things an omnipotent being could do (presumably) is to cease to be omnipotent. So an omnipotent being could create the stone, cease to be omnipotent, then fail to lift the stone. This is a bit of a cheat though, because the failure itself would not be the failure of an omnipotent being. But the point is, that the Stone Paradox is not a problem for what we might call non-essential omnipotence, i.e. a being whose powers include being able to lay aside his omnipotence. (I believe that Q from Star Trek was omnipotent in this sense.) However, the Stone Paradox is potentially a challenge for an essentially omnipotent being, i.e. a being who cannot cease to be omnipotent. The God of classical theism is said to be omnipotent in this sense. So can God create a stone that he can’t lift?

Some, like William Alston, have argued that ‘a stone heavier than infinite power can lift’ is a contradiction in terms. Since omnipotence is usually defined in the literature as the ability to do anything that is logically possible, if ‘a stone heavier than infinite power can lift’ is a logical impossibility, we can hardly expect God to accomplish it. However, we might think of other actions that clearly are logically possible that God cannot perform. Again, these are not necessarily problems for omnipotence per se, but for a being with God’s attributes. For example, due to God’s moral perfection, he can’t perform evil acts. Also, due to God’s incorporeality, he can’t swim or dance a waltz (without becoming incarnate, if that notion is coherent).  These acts are clearly logically possible and a morally flawed or corporeal omnipotent being could perform them, but God could not. So if God is omnipotent, he is not what we might call ‘act-omnipotent.’ There are several acts that God could fail to perform.

Perhaps this is why philosophers of religion have moved away from defining omnipotence as act-omnipotence. Rather, omnipotence is defined as the power to bring about any state of affairs the description of which is logically possible. A being who is omnipotent in this sense need not be act-omnipotent. (Kenneth Pearce and Alexander Pruss have recently argued that omnipotence doesn’t entail act-omnipotence. It’s very technical and I’m not sure I understand it, but let’s grant for the sake of argument.) Nevertheless, it’s still omnipotence worthy of the name. In the case of God, we have a being who is necessarily omnipotent (omnipotent in every possible world) and can bring about any logically possible state of affairs. This certainly seems like a lot of power. Can an omnipotent being, defined in this way, fail?

Plausibly, yes. This issue comes up with respect to the problem of evil. Alvin Plantinga’s famous “Free Will Defense” claims that even an omnipotent being could not give creatures free will and guarantee that those creatures would never do evil. However, as J.L. Mackie pointed out, a world in which free creatures always freely choose the good is a logically possible state of affairs, and as such, it’s one God could have actualized. Here the argument gets rather technical. Plantinga replied that although that description is a logically possible state of affairs, it’s not a feasible state of affairs for God to bring about. In other words, once God gives free creatures a say in the world, it’s no longer exclusively up to God which logically possible state of affairs will obtain. Furthermore, Plantinga argues, it may be the case, for all we know to the contrary, that for any world containing free creatures that God creates, those free creatures will go wrong. Plantinga calls this feature ‘transworld depravity.’ In other words, maybe God can’t, despite omnipotence, create a world containing free creatures without moral evil. Another way we might say this is that here we have a case of an omnipotent being failing to get what it (presumably) wants, i.e. a world in which free creatures always freely choose the good.

Now to bring the issue back to universalism. A world in which all free creatures are freely saved is a logically possible state of affairs. Moreover, if this is a state of affairs that God wants, then this state of affairs should obtain because God is omnipotent and could not fail to accomplish what he wants. This seems to be what Bell is arguing. However, parallel to the case of transworld depravity, is what some have called ‘transworld damnation.’ For all we know to the contrary, a world in which all are freely saved, although a logically possible state of affairs, is not a feasible state of affairs for God to bring about. So here’s another example of how an omnipotent being might fail.

I don’t really have a horse in this race. As an outsider (albeit one who used to be an insider) I don’t take a position on universalism vs. particularism and that hasn’t been the point of this little essay. Moreover, I’m not sure where I stand on the coherence of the concept of an omnipotent being, although I suspect the burden of proof is on those who say it’s incoherent. I haven’t sought to take up that issue either. Rather, I’ve sought to show how our intuitions about these issues can lead us astray. What seems like a commonsensical intuition — that an omnipotent being cannot fail — seems to be false regardless of which of our definitions of ‘omnipotence’ one chooses. Bell may have to give up his intuition on this issue. What implications that might have for his theology, I leave to others.


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