October 11, 2003
The triple omni

Richard Hall blogged a lecture he heard about the problem of evil, which apparently argued for a redefinition of omnipotence. From what I understand of the brief summary I'm not convinced, but it brought to mind a larger question.

I've been having a lot of problems with the idea of God as omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent, and not just because of the problem of evil. So it makes me wonder: why do Christians insist on this point? I mean, I understand why it's important that God be both powerful and good, and why he must be stronger and better than us and Satan (however you want to define Satan). But he doesn't have to be triple-omni to be those things. He doesn't have to be triple-omni to be our creator either, since many mythologies have conceived of creation by limited gods. And to be perfectly honest, I don't think a lot of Christians I know really have that image of God in their minds. They will say he's omnipotent if you ask, but move on to other matters and they'll depict a God who sounds really human.

Christians put up with a certain amount of mystery about their God, but they do seem to think they know his limits (or lack thereof). Richard's lecturer seems to be backing away from the concept, but covering it up with a word game: he's not really renouncing triple-omni, he's just redefining the words to the point of being unrecognizable. But why even hang on to the concept? What has triple-omni really brought to Christianity, except torturous metaphysics and a lot of Calvinist/Arminian/whatever factionalism?

I'm not trying to be snarky, I'm asking this as a serious question. Why does it matter to my Christian readers that God be triple-omni? Would it make a difference if he weren't?

Posted by Camassia at October 11, 2003 01:53 PM | TrackBack

I think that the triple-omni comes about as a necessary condition of God being perfect. If God is not omniscient, he can be fooled. If God is not omnipotent, he can be injured. If God is not omnibenevolent, he can be faulted. If any of these things were to occur, God would not be perfect. But, what are the implications of an imperfect God?

Posted by: Rob on October 11, 2003 04:53 PM

I believe that God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent. I think that evil does exist (although I don't find the personification of evil to be very helpful). I think God's omni-nature, against the backdrop of the problem of evil, is a mystery, and we don't get to know the answer--in this life.

I also think I may be too comfortable with these beliefs, but don't know what else to believe!

Posted by: dash on October 11, 2003 07:34 PM

Satan's greatest triumph has been to convince mankind that he does not exist.

Posted by: Rob on October 11, 2003 07:48 PM

I should add that the thought above is a paraphrase of an idea that I encountered in one of C.S. Lewis' books. I don't think that it was original with Lewis, however.

Posted by: Rob on October 11, 2003 08:34 PM

Sheesh, me and my parenthetical remarks -- the conversation's already getting sidetracked! The point I was trying to make is that Christian theology demands that God be stronger than evil, which I think we can all agree exists, regardless of whether you think it's organized under a supernatural being. My question is, does the idea that he's relatively more powerful mean he has to be all powerful?

Posted by: Camassia on October 12, 2003 08:56 AM

He has to be all-powerful if he has to be perfect.
Also, if he's not, one can imagine a posthumous autobiography entitled: "Cosmic Loophole: How I Outsmarted God and Escaped from Hell"...

Posted by: Rob on October 12, 2003 10:44 AM

What I'm questioning here is the dichotomy of: either God is all-powerful, or he's so weak humans can pull a fast one on him. But, to borrow one of Joel's favorite analogies, we may seem incomprehensibly powerful to an amoeba, but that doesn't make us omnipotent. Is there any way humans can know if God is all-powerful or just way more powerful than us? Does he have to be perfect, or just way better than us?

Posted by: Camassia on October 12, 2003 12:55 PM

Perhaps the question is whether terms like "powerful" and especially "benevolent" can even be meaningfully applied to God? I think perhaps that it is best to think of God as the Utterly Other. The only thing we can know about God is that anything we know about first-hand is *not* God. What was it that Wittgenstein said? "Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must be silent."

Posted by: Rob on October 12, 2003 01:16 PM

If I were an amoeba, I wouldn't worship me, any more than I feel any particular need to worship an angel or highly advanced alien.

If God is not perfect and omniscient, God can be wrong and therefore does not have any greater authority over me than my parents or a great philosopher. If God isn't omnipotent, I can't count on Him to accomplish all His goals. And if God isn't omnibenevolent, I am screwwwwwed.

So maybe I'm just picky...but if God isn't perfect and doesn't have all three omnis, God is just another critter. I don't worship my fellow critters, and that's that. Like 'em, love 'em, honor 'em, sure. But worship some pitiful limited thing? Yeah, right.

Rather than an imperfect God, worshipping myself or the blind cosmos would be a much better bet. So yeah, I'd say all three omnis are crucial to Christianity. (Unless you want to try Gnostic Christianity...heh, didn't think so.)

Maureen O'Brien

Posted by: Maureen O'Brien on October 12, 2003 02:46 PM

Gnosticism *does* attempt to explain the Problem of Evil, rather than just copping out by calling it a "mystery". Gnosticism is also, according to Harold Bloom, the subtext of the contemporary, typically American, concept of religion. It's worth thinking about.

Posted by: Rob on October 12, 2003 02:57 PM

I think we need to look at this problem Christocentrically (I'm knee deep in Barth right now, so of course I'd say that). It really is a question of what those concepts mean as defined by the life, death and resurrection of Christ. Otherwise you're coming at them from a purely philosophical point of view, which is interesting, but can stray from Christian concepts. I agree with Maureen that God needs to be perfect, but I also agree with Richard's original post that "omnipotent" and such can only be defined by Christ. It's not merely redefining the words. The words are the concept.

Posted by: Jennifer on October 12, 2003 03:10 PM

To say that the three omnis must be defined by Christ reduces the argument to one of semantics. It seems clear to me that none of the three omnis, as they are standardly defined in philosophical arguments, really applies to God in human form, as Christ. For instance, Jesus says "Why do you call me good, when only my Father is good"?
The case of omniscience brings up the problem of predestination, also the problem of free will. If God already knows whether or not I'm going to be saved (but I don't), then nothing I'm going to do is going to change that: my freedom is illusory, and my life is mechanical: the mind of God contains all of eternity. But, if God can "change his mind" about me, because of how I live my life, then his omniscience is conditional and therefore not perfect, and he is also not perfect.
It may therefore be best to avoid the semantics and to accept that anything we know of the Father, we know through the Son. Our capacity for understanding is limited; our capacity to love may be greater. If we study what is meant by I am the Way and the Truth and the Life, we will have food enough for thought and meditation. In order to overcome the problem of evil, we must become like Christ.

Posted by: Rob on October 12, 2003 03:58 PM

Yes, it would matter if God weren't omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent. For starters, it would mean Scripture is not a reliable authority on God.

Even if you reinterpret Scripture such that God : us :: us : amoebae, you'd need to explain how we can be sure that God will be able to do what He has promised. For that matter, you'd have to explain why we should care, beyond reasons of self-interest, whether we'll spend eternity worshipping some podunk demiurge.

And if you want tortuous metaphysics, try to explain (from within an at least nominally Christian framework) where the power, knowledge, and love God doesn't have comes from.

Posted by: Tom on October 13, 2003 09:26 AM

It's not a question of spending eternity worshipping some podunk demiurge; it's a question of not mistaking some podunk demiurge (who may no longer even be with us) for the One True God. Worship the demiurge and there IS no eternity that could be mistaken for heaven, right?

Posted by: Rob on October 13, 2003 09:41 AM


I understood Camassia to be asking what difference it would make if the [actual, existing] One True God of Christianity were in fact just a podunk demiurge. (The thing about moving from an infinite attribute to a finite attribute is you can scale it down as far as you'd like; "podunk demiurge" sounds a bit dismissive of an "all-but-all-powerful" god from our point of view, but we could as easily think of a non-omnipotent god as an overachieving beaver who creates a cosmos for his swamp.)

But yes, if the One True God is omnipotent etc., Christians aren't doing anyone any favors by taking Him for less.

Posted by: Tom on October 13, 2003 01:08 PM

Somebody up the line mentioned the Gnostics, at which point, I guess, the demiurge entered the fray. I am ready to entertain (only because it's entertaining) the concept that the creator god was not the One True God, who is utterly transcendent.
But my bottom line is that we know the Father only through the Son, who is the Way and the Truth and the Life. This is more than enough for our tiny little minds to try to grasp and to conform our lives to.
But what worries me more than the problem of evil is the problem of God's omniscience, and the implications of that for free will and for predestination. If the mind of God contains the knowledge of everything in Eternity, then every apparent choice I make has already been a done deal from Day One. Now, there's a problem!
Also, with respect to the problem of evil: if God is All Good, then He is not free (and thus not omnipotent), since his goodness constrains him from committing evil. It follows, then, that God does not move, does not act, but only IS.
So who is Yahweh? The demiurge, perhaps?

Posted by: Rob on October 13, 2003 02:24 PM


I wasn't able to read the above comments with care so I apologize if this has already been stated. Re your question, Why does it matter to my Christian readers that God be triple-omni? Would it make a difference if he weren't? I think the most succinct answer is that it matters because you can't have one omni-adjective without the others. This makes the second question moot. A more technical answer (from Christian metaphysics) would approach this question in terms of the "transcendental" aspects of being: unity, truth, goodness and how these aspects of being are all convertible. Therefore, God, who is infinite and being itself, is necessarily all the omni-words.

Perhaps one way to see how this might work (though this approach limps if you put too much weight on it) without all the metaphysical jargon is to run some of the possible permutations: For omnipotence: an all powerful God couldn't do anything possible (omnipotence) unless He knew how to do anything possible, which is to know everything (omniscience) because one has to know all possible beings and how to create them if one is omnipotent. A God who can do anything possible and knows everything would do what is best for every creature ("omnibenevolent") He created since anything less than best is a privation from what a thing ought to have and therefore a God who can and knows how to do what is best would have no reason to do what is less than best since to do less than what is best for a creature is to fail to do what God has already determined was best (hence the source of the "ought" in "what a thing ought to have" above) and would suggest that God was not omnipotent. If you run through all of the omni-words in this cumbersome fashion you'll get a sense of what it means to say you can't have one without the other and generate some really long sentences.

Posted by: Mark on October 13, 2003 10:36 PM

The only problem with Mark's analysis above is that human experience does not (seemingly) bear out the concept of God's possession of ANY of the omnis. This is why questions like Camassia's get asked in the first place.
If the mind of God contains all possibilities, it then contains omni-evil, as well as omni-good. If God is all-powerful, then God must not be constrained from acting on every evil realized by his omniscience. How, then, can God be omnibenevolent? How, without torturing the mind until the word "good" is applied to things that are obviously "bad", can human existence be said to provide evidence of an all-knowing, all-powerful, and omnibenevolent God?
Some horror occurs and we say (sadly), "Well, it's all for the best".
Is it?

Posted by: Rob on October 14, 2003 01:52 AM


If God knows what you're going to do from Eternity, why do you say it's "already" a done deal "from Day One"?

Your "God isn't omnipotent because He can't commit evil" is a "God can't create a square circle" logical oxymoron. This may be easier to see if you put it the other way around: "God's power isn't without limit because He lacks the power to commit evil." But evil isn't a thing, it's the lack of a thing. You don't "commit evil" by excercising power, but by failing to exercise it. There is no such thing, strictly speaking, as the "power" to do evil.

"X has the power to commit evil" actually means "X is imperfect."

Posted by: Tom on October 14, 2003 06:14 AM

Do you see eternity as an endless succession of newly minted moments, surrounded by nothingness, or as something already and always and everywhere present, in which we (with our limited equipment) are aware only of our physical and mental movement at any given point in time?
As for evil being merely the lack of good, this is true in the same way that darkness is the lack of light; but it's also true that I can choose to stay in the light, or to enter the darkness: by throwing a switch I can darken a lighted room.
I cannot square a circle in an analogous way, however, because a squared circle would no longer fit the definition of a circle. The attempt in geometry was to find a formula by which you could devise a circle and a square of the same area, not to make them formally equivalent.

Posted by: Rob on October 14, 2003 06:28 AM

For our struggle is not against enemies of flesh and blood, but against the authorities, against the cosmic *powers* of this present darkness, against the spiritual *forces of evil* in the heavenly places. Ephesians 6:12 NRSV (emphasis added)

Posted by: Rob on October 14, 2003 06:42 AM


In answer to your question on eternity, no, I don't see it as either. I don't see it at all. I can barely imagine it, and most of what I imagine about it is what it isn't.

As imperfect beings, we can "do evil" in the sense of acting to deprive other beings of some perfections they should have. In fact, we can hardly help but do things imperfectly, even when we desire to "do good." But to say God isn't omnipotent because He can't "do evil" is to say He lacks something because He is perfect. That's an oxymoron.

As far as Ephesians 6:12: I'm not saying "powers of darkness" or "forces of evil" is an oxymoron; St. Paul wasn't writing metaphysics here. I am saying that it's an equivocation to go from Ephesians 6:12's "powers of darkness" to "God is not omnipotent because He lacks the power of darkness."

Posted by: Tom on October 14, 2003 09:56 AM

I'm not actually making that argument--I'm just stating aspects of the argument as they are presented in Philo 101 (btw, I got an A+ on the relevant paper, back in the day).
My personal point (which I've stated twice above) is: we can know the Father only through the Son; the Son is the Way and the Truth and the Life; the meaning of this is what we should be talking about, rather than about things that are well beyond our ken.

Posted by: Rob on October 14, 2003 12:14 PM

I think the problem is viewing God as if She's some sort of person who can have these non-person qualities (omniscience, etc.) and then trying to reconcile these two views. It really can't be done.

The problem is that all these terms are just a metaphor for what She is, rather than a definition. God is so much more than "three omnis" and Her being can't really be defined within these terms. Attempting to fit these notions -- which are not biblical, mind you, although they have evolved through the course of Christian tradition -- into our view of how we see the world will be nearly impossible.

And ultimately, I think, pointless. It is better to talk about She who Is -- who surrounds us, who speaks to us, who gives us meaning -- rather than abstract concepts which make a feeble attempt to describe Her.


Posted by: Kynn Bartlett on October 17, 2003 09:39 PM
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