I Have Never Been Omnipotent, But I Have Loved

 Another reprint from Mormon Matters. I was not really satisfied with this post because I felt it left the false impression that all Christians believe one specific way about the nature of God, which isn’t true. Still, for those that this criticism does apply to – ch as the footnoted Owens and Mosser – I think it’s accurate. It’s easy to start emphasizing the parts of the nature of God that we know nothing about and to downplay the ones we actually understand to some degree.

Consider the following lists of attributes of God:

  • Omnipotent
  • Loving
  • Merciful
  • Gracious
  • Omniscient
  • Just
  • Omnipresent
  • Unchanging
  • Truthful / Cannot lie
  • No Respecter of Persons
  • Slow to Anger
  • Long-suffering / Patient
  • Infinite
  • Eternal
  • Sovereign

It seems to me that we can actually split this list into two lists: those attributes of God that we share with Him and those attributes of God that we don’t share, at least at this time.

Attributes of God that We Don’t Share Attributes of God that We Do Share – In Imperfect Forms
  • Omnipotent
  • Omniscient
  • Omnipresent
  • Unchanging
  • Infinite
  • Eternal (i.e. in this temporal life)
  • Loving
  • Merciful
  • Gracious
  • Just
  • Truthful / Cannot lie
  • No Respecter of Persons
  • Slow to Anger
  • Long-suffering / Patient

What’s interesting to me is that these two lists may well define an important difference between Mormon and other Christian religion’s views of God. It is my experience that many of the top objections other Christians have towards Mormons are that they aren’t so sure we believe in the first list (i.e. Attributes of God that We Don’t Share) in the same way they do.

For example, other Christians might object that since Mormons believe God cannot create “Intelligence” (a term we don’t really define, so I don’t really know what ‘can’t create intelligences’ means) out of nothing as in D&C 93:29 that must mean that we don’t really believe God is omnipotent; that or else He’s not omnipotent in the way they’d like to see the word defined. Likewise the idea that God has a body (D&C 130:22) would seem to imply to other Christians that Mormons don’t really believe God is omnipresent.[1] And if in Mormon theology God was once not God[2] then can we really say He’s “unchangeable” or “Eternal” in the “orthodox” sense of the word, can we? Heck, some Mormons even argue that maybe God doesn’t really know what the future holds for us individually and is thus not Omniscient in the “orthodox” sense.[3]

No wonder other Christians aren’t so sure that Mormons really believe in that first list of attributes of God.[4]

On the other hand, Mormons aren’t so sure other Christians really believe that God is everything on the second list (i.e. Attributes of God that We Do Share) in the same way that Mormons understand those terms. From our point of view other Christians seem to believe in a God that makes other beings solely to worship Him out of some sense of desire to be worshipped. For the more Calvinistic Christians, it seems to us that they teach of a God that could save everyone if He but chose to do so, but has decided not to. Even the more Arminian Christians believe that once a person dies God no longer allows them to repent and choose Christ to avoid Eternal torment in hell for the rest of forever. (With hell often being boiled in a pit of fire and brimstone besides.)

Even amongst themselves these matters are often rather murky for other Christians. For example, one very influential Christian teacher, A.W. Pink[5], went so far as to teach that God does not in fact love those that He sends to hell. Why should He since they had no redeeming characteristics at all?[6]

Yes, it’s easy to see that from a Mormon point of view other Christians might not really believe in that second list of God’s attributes.

As it turns out – and I know many of you may be shocked by this fact – I’ve never actually been omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, unchanging, nor infinite. I am not even sure how to really comprehend, much less define, those terms properly. Even if I could come up with a working definition I’d have no basis for knowing if I got the right definition – from God’s point of view – or not.

I’m also pretty sure that not a single Christian that has attacked Mormons for not really believing in the first list has ever possessed any of those attributes either. So I’m going to venture an opinion that their definitions of those terms are really just a guess and might be incorrect.

On the other hand, I have loved before. I have been merciful before. I have been just at times. I have told the truth on occasion. I’ve been known to be gracious now and again. While I’m none of these things perfectly, I have a pretty good idea what they are and even some inkling what they would be like in a perfect form.

When I pointed out to my Evangelical/Calvinistic friend that there was no way to reconcile a perfectly loving God to one that choose for us if we are saved or damned and predestinated us to that choice, he admitted he knew of no way to reconcile that “paradox.”[7] And yet, because I understand the concept of love, I’m pretty sure there is no meaningful sense of the word “love” in which such an action could ever be reconciled to love –no matter what extenuating circumstances might exist to justify it.

When I asked a group of Christians online about why a perfectly loving God would not allow people in hell to accept Christ and end their torment, they really had no answer to give me outside of the obvious: that’s the way it is and we mortals just can’t understand God’s love. Again, I am doubtful that such acts could be considered “loving” or “merciful” or frankly even just “justice” no matter what extenuating circumstances might exist.

I personally believe that other Christians have it backward: one can correctly define God in terms of the second list (attributes we share with God) but that it’s impossible to be sure you’ve defined him correctly in terms of the first list (attributes we do not share with God) because we have no meaningful experience with such attributes.


Notes: 

[1] Mosser and Owens, two Evangelical scholars, write: “For example, what Latter-day Saints such as Robinson refer to as “omnipresent” would probably be more accurately described as ‘omni-influential’ (compare D&C 88:12-13, 41). What he terms omniscient as ‘omni-aware.’” (link)

[2] A debatable point in Mormon theology, but let’s assume the worse for the sake of argument.

[3] The idea that God doesn’t know if we’ll choose Him or not doesn’t seem to be very common amongst Mormons, but it’s not a belief that is rooted out or particularly looked down upon because of our openness of interpretation on this point.

[4] On the other hand, if I want to get technical — which I do – I’m not so sure orthodox-Christians believe God is omnipotent, omnipresent, nor omniscient according to their own definitions either. For example, they don’t believe God can make humans into ‘gods’ because there is an ontological divide between creator and created; so God is apparently not omnipotent. They do believe it’s possible for a person to be separated from God — that’s what hell is — so apparently God isn’t actually omnipresent. They believe God needed to become incarnate to learn about the human experience so He could succor us, so He wasn’t always omniscient. Oh, and God was incapable (i.e. not omnipotent?) of forgiving us without sacrificing Jesus.

[5] “Biographer Iain Murray observes of Pink, ‘the widespread circulation of his writings after his death made him one of the most influential evangelical authors in the second half of the twentieth century.’” From Wikipedia article on A.W. Pink.

[6] “One of the most popular beliefs of the day is that God loves everybody, and the very fact that it is so popular with all classes ought to be enough to arouse the suspicions of those who are subject to the Word of Truth. … No matter how a man may live-in open defiance of Heaven, with no concern whatever for his soul’s eternal interests, still less for God’s glory, dying, perhaps with an oath on his lips-notwithstanding, God loves him, we are told. So widely has this dogma been proclaimed, and so comforting is it to the heart which is at enmity with God we have little hope of convincing many of their error.” A.W. Pink’s The Sovereignty of God, Chapter 11.

[7] He was actually more blunt than this. He said that he hated that doctrine and wished it wasn’t that way, but that’s what the Bible teaches. He said he didn’t know how to reconcile the seeming contradiction but he was convinced that he just didn’t understand the concept of a perfectly loving God well enough to understand in what sense it was loving to not save people from hell when one could have.

2 thoughts on “I Have Never Been Omnipotent, But I Have Loved

  1. The trouble with words like infinity and eternity (which LDS use a lot) is that they are abstract. We can’t count to infinity. We have a hard time even visuallizing hundreds, much less trillions. We use descriptions such as “through the eternities” and “from eternity to eternity” to try and describe time frames we can’t comprehend. We have a hard time visualizing time frames longer than our own lifetimes (e.g. to a teenager, 40 is nearly dead; to an octogenerian, anyone below 60 is a youngster).

    That’s why I like that in the LDS beliefs we’ve given general ideas on the afterlife, but are told to avoid declaring anyone as absolutely going to one place or another. We simply dont have the perspecive necessary to make a completely just judgement.

  2. You get into trouble right from the start. Your word choices lead to your conclusion. You could just as well say that God is ‘all-loving’ or “omni-merciful.” Similarly, we do in fact share in God’s omnipotence, albeit imperfectly, to the extent that we have power or capabilities. And we share in God’s omniscience, albeit imperfectly, to the extent we have knowledge. So I think the distinction between your two columns collapses.

    My potence no more and no less gives me insight into God’s omnipotence than my love gives me insight into God’s all-lovingness.

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