God is what?
September 9, 2010 6:47 AM   Subscribe

Does the Bible ever state categorically that God is (a) omnipotent and (b) omnibenevolent?

It is taken for granted that God is all-powerful and all-merciful. Is there Biblical authority for these claims?
posted by dontjumplarry to Religion & Philosophy (20 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Revelations 19:6 - "And I heard, as it were, the voice of a great multitude, as the sound of many waters and as the sound of mighty thunderings, saying, “Alleluia! For the Lord God Omnipotent reigns!'

James 1:13 - "Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He Himself tempt anyone."
posted by jedicus at 6:56 AM on September 9, 2010

Then there are a lot more implicit claims to God's omnipotence. For starters, he creates the universe in Genesis, but there are also claims of ongoing intervention in the world (e.g., miracles). Here are some more verses:

Matthew 10:28-31 - "And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a copper coin? And not one of them falls to the ground apart from your Father’s will. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Do not fear therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows."

Psalm 139:13, 16 - "For You formed my inward parts;
You covered me in my mother’s womb...
Your eyes saw my substance, being yet unformed.
And in Your book they all were written,
The days fashioned for me,
When as yet there were none of them."
posted by jedicus at 7:01 AM on September 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

And another verse for omnibenevolence:

1 John 4:7-10 - "Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God, for God is love. In this the love of God was manifested toward us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins."
posted by jedicus at 7:05 AM on September 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Is there specific authority for the idea that God is infallibly all-loving or all-merciful as opposed to the more generic "not-evil"? In other words, might God be simply unconcerned by human suffering? (I ask because of the problem of evil -- which is only a problem if God is omnipotent and unfailingly benevolent.)
posted by dontjumplarry at 7:10 AM on September 9, 2010

Response by poster: (Shoulda previewed, sorry)
posted by dontjumplarry at 7:12 AM on September 9, 2010

And a few more:

Psalm 145:8-9, 17 - "The LORD is gracious and full of compassion,
Slow to anger and great in mercy.
The LORD is good to all,
And His tender mercies are over all His works....
The LORD is righteous in all His ways,
Gracious in all His works."

James 1:17 - "Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning."

Mark 10:18 - "So Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God."
posted by jedicus at 7:13 AM on September 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

I ask because of the problem of evil -- which is only a problem if God is omnipotent and unfailingly benevolent

Ah, yes, so for that you can look at some broader context. The Biblical conception of 'good' or 'gracious' or what-have-you is a little more complex than a strict "always be nice to everyone" policy. It is probably better to say that the God of the Bible is portrayed as being omnipotent and all-just. That is, he seems to prioritize justice over compassion and mercy. Consider Psalm 145. "The LORD is gracious and full of compassion", but:

"He will fulfill the desire of those who fear Him;
He also will hear their cry and save them.
The LORD preserves all who love Him,
But all the wicked He will destroy."

Consider further Exodus 20:4-6 - "You shall not make for yourself a carved image—any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments."

This kind of thing is a theme in both the Old and New testaments.
posted by jedicus at 7:23 AM on September 9, 2010 [4 favorites]

Even if we had a biblical passage specifically stating that God is omnibenevolent, there are many other aspects of the bible which would contradict such a claim. I think that jedicus did find the verses that you wanted; in particular the statement that "God is love" does clearly imply perfect benevolence on God's part. However, this is the same God who, in the Old Testament, is given to frequent fits of wrath in which he does such things as causing a flood which kills everybody other than the inhabitants of Noah's ark, which does not sound very merciful or benevolent to me (and there are many other examples). So the real answer, I believe, is that yes, God is described (in the New Testament only) as being both omnipotent and omnibenevolent, however, the bible is far from consistent in this vision of God's nature.

There are a few different ways of approaching the famous theological Problem of Evil. Even if God as described in the bible makes no sense to us, we could then say that God simply surpasses human understanding, and everything He does actually does make sense even when (as the frequent saying goes) "we do not always understand His ways". That is one strategy. The free will defense is also very famous. God could prevent all evil in the universe, but He chooses not to do that, because human beings can only be truly good if they are allowed the freedom to choose to be either good or evil. If they are good only because God forces them to be good, that is not very good. As a further refinement, demons are also allowed free will, which is why we have natural disasters such as earthquakes. Despite the fact that either of those interpretations is philosophically workable, you might also consider a third alternative, which is that God is an unnecessary hypothesis. Rather than tying ourselves in intellectual knots trying to rationalize the many bizarre implications of the bible or of theology in general, we can just say that there is no real evidence that such a being even exists, so why worry about it.
posted by grizzled at 7:23 AM on September 9, 2010 [2 favorites]

So the real answer, I believe, is that yes, God is described (in the New Testament only) as being both omnipotent and omnibenevolent,

I don't know about that. I think the Old and New Testaments are pretty even on that score. There are more Old Testament examples of God being described as loving, merciful, etc, and there are plenty of New Testament examples of God doing apparently terrible things to people. Witness large chunks of Revelations, for example, but also Acts 5:1-11, in which God strikes two people dead for, basically, failing to tithe adequately.
posted by jedicus at 7:29 AM on September 9, 2010

"That is, he seems to prioritize justice over compassion and mercy."

I would say rather that the Biblical God seems to hold justice and mercy in tension; there are clear moments when God is merciful rather than just (forgiving Ninevah in Jonah, and Jonah sulks about it) and clear moments when God is just rather than merciful. It's a traditional claim in both Judaism and Christianity that God is BOTH all-just AND all-merciful, and I think it's clear that the Biblical redactors (if not writers) intend to hold these two claims in tension.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:43 AM on September 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

Is there specific authority for the idea that God is infallibly all-loving or all-merciful as opposed to the more generic "not-evil"? In other words, might God be simply unconcerned by human suffering? (I ask because of the problem of evil -- which is only a problem if God is omnipotent and unfailingly benevolent.)

You're really going to need to define your terms there. "Omnipotent" doesn't really allow for much in the way of interpretation, but "omni-benevolent" could mean almost anything depending on how you want to define "benevolent".

Your definition of that term will determine whether you think it is benevolent to punish the wicked. If your answer is "Yes," the problem of theodicy is a lot easier to deal with. True, the answer of why there is evil in the first place is still problematic,* but if suffering is the just reward for sin, then God would arguably be evil himself if he did not punish the wicked. Because it's pretty easy to find textual evidence in both Old and New Testaments that the Bible thinks that all men are evil, not to mention uncounted examples of God promising to punish sin, that significantly reduces the scope of the problem.

Christians--and Jews, as far as I can tell--have a rather nuanced concept of what constitutes "benevolence," and are pretty comfortable with the idea that our inability to see or explain how a particular event is for the best in the long run does not mean that can't actually be for the best in the long run. Both traditions, but especially the Christian tradition, tend to put a lot of weight on the concept that God will make it all right in the end, so even if the books don't "balance" now, they will eventually. Not precisely karma, but it's certainly a long game.

If, on the other hand, you believe that benevolence requires always and only doing pleasant things, i.e. there is no such thing as punishment for sin, then you've really got a problem, because the Bible has no way of handling that. Even positing universal salvation isn't enough, because the standard Christian** way of explaining that doctrine is that all of mankind's deserved punishment is transferred to Jesus, so you've still got a God who hates and punishes sin. That doesn't fit with this concept of benevolence.

But if all you're looking for are passages which imply that God is both infinitely powerful and unfailingly good, spend some time in the Psalms and Prophets, especially Ezekiel and Isaiah. Those are of particular interest because they contain passages where God promises to do some pretty terrible things in response to human sin. Christians--and Jews, for that matter--interpret that passage in a way which preserves God as benevolent, but if you don't buy that, well... I'm not sure there's much I can do for you. You'll have to punt on either one or the other, if not both, and benevolence is probably the easiest thing to pitch.

In short though, if you're looking for an explanation which works without any reference to some belief held on faith, you aren't going to find one.

*Many if not most serious-minded, theologically-educated Christians simply believe that this is inexplicable in this life. Which would be where faith comes in.

**So-called universal reconciliation is an option within Christianity, but it's a minority position at best, and disfavored--though not considered heretical--by most of the major orthodox traditions, which believe that there will be at least some people who are not saved.
posted by valkyryn at 8:14 AM on September 9, 2010 [2 favorites]

You raise good points Eyebrows McGee. I would say, though, that the final resolution seems to be in favor of justice and judgment rather than mercy.

2 Timothy 4:1 - "I charge you therefore before God and the Lord Jesus Christ, who will judge the living and the dead at His appearing and His kingdom"

1 Peter 4:5 - "They will give an account to Him who is ready to judge the living and the dead."

Revelations 20:12-15 - "And I saw the dead, small and great, standing before God, and books were opened. And another book was opened, which is the Book of Life. And the dead were judged according to their works, by the things which were written in the books. The sea gave up the dead who were in it, and Death and Hades delivered up the dead who were in them. And they were judged, each one according to his works. Then Death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And anyone not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire."

The Old Testament is no different on this account. For example, the description of the end times in Daniel also suggests a final judgment rather than a final mercy. Consider also the passages in 1 Peter 3, Hebrews 9, and Romans 6 indicating that Christ's sacrifice was a one-time occurrence, not to be repeated. This suggests to me that there will be no 'second chance' for mercy.

Of course, I'm an atheist, so that no doubt colors my view of things.
posted by jedicus at 8:16 AM on September 9, 2010

I'm going to side with the idea of clarification of terms. Omnipotence, what does that mean? Does your definition of omnipotent include an omnipotent being break logic as we know it, not merely violating physical law but altering logic itself? Would that, combined with some definitions of omnibenevolence, imply that God would just, woosh! skip Creation entirely and dump everyone in Heaven from the get-go, having also cheerfully rearranged logic and consequence such that everyone felt pretty fulfilled about it?

Absolutes are very tough and tend to create a number of contradictions once you begin looking for them.

I think you're going to have a very hard time connecting that back to the highly metaphorical and lyrical language of the original document, so much so that, if you went back in time and chatted with the various Biblical figures and examined their responses to the question of just how far their idea of "omni-" extended, you'd be hard-pressed to come up with consistent answers.
posted by adipocere at 9:04 AM on September 9, 2010

It may be useful to note that many historians of Christianity see omnipotence (and other perfections) as an influence from Hellenistic philosophy, and not native to Hebrew religion. You can find lots of non-omnipotent, non-benevolent, and non-omniscient behavior going on in the Biblical narrative. E.g. Gen. 18:22-33--God wants to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah and Abraham reprimands God for his injustice, and barters God into preserving the cities if Abraham can find enough righteous men.
posted by reverend cuttle at 9:07 AM on September 9, 2010

Somewhat along the lines of reverend cuttle, it's also important to remember that neither for rabbinical Judaism or for Catholicism of Eastern Orthodoxy are all the truths of faith expected to be contained in the Torah or Bible.

For example, in Catholicism, the Church is the source of the Bible and the creeds (e.g. "I believe in one god, the father almighty" (which in Latin is "patrem omnipotentem"), councils, Bible, etc. all all part of the faith handed on from the Apostles. So, in that tradition, while one can argue for a point of faith based on its being found in the Bible, one can't argue against it merely based on the silence of the Bible.
posted by Jahaza at 9:44 AM on September 9, 2010

It might help to know if the OP is asking for personal spiritual growth, as part of an argument he's trying to win, or as part of a typical philosophy of religion class, or what ... which I think would help with the term-defining problem, too!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:08 AM on September 9, 2010

It's worth pointing out that while there are people who call themselves Christians who believe what reverend tuttle believes, they do not generally fall within traditional/orthodox understandings of Christianity.

But independent of that, Jahaza is right: the fact that a particular doctrine does/does not show up in "clear" language in the Bible isn't a terribly good guide to how the Bible is conventionally understood by any Christian--or Jewish--tradition. I had a rather extensive answer on that about two years ago.
posted by valkyryn at 11:16 AM on September 9, 2010

And of course there is no explicit textual authority in the Bible that only explicit textual authority in the Bible counts as authoritative. And even if there were, that dictate would need to be accepted on some other basis...

If you're interested in the problem of evil, though, Alvin Plantinga has a pretty good (though not unanimously accepted) argument for the logical compatibility of evil and an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent god. The catch is that, aside from adopting an unusual view of free will, you have to bite a huge bullet and believe that natural evil (earthquakes, famine, etc.) is caused by agents with free will (demons, aliens, other humans, etc.).

The Alvin Plantinga link has a broad discussion of other variations and responses to the problem of evil that you might find interesting.
posted by Marty Marx at 4:23 PM on September 9, 2010

The Bible says a lot of things but they aren't always clear cut.

GE 17:1, 35:11, 1CH 29:11-12, LK 1:37 God is omnipotent. Nothing is impossible with (or for) God. JG 1:19 Although God was with Judah, together they could not defeat the plainsmen because the latter had iron chariots.

GE 4:15, DT 32:19-27, IS 34:8 God is a vengeful god. Does this counter with omnibenevolence? Or should omnibenevolence only refer to believers and not to God's "enemies?"

posted by IndigoRain at 10:55 PM on September 9, 2010

"Omnipotent" doesn't really allow for much in the way of interpretation, "

It's been mentioned up-thread already, but there are at least two versions of omnipotence.

1) God can do anything that can be done (i.e God's power is constrained by logic).

2) God can do anything, even seemingly impossible things like making squares (that are the color of hateful-mercy) which have 10 sides and 5 dimensions.

Many scholars and Christians opt for omnipotence in sense 1. Although, interestingly, Descartes and Leibniz thought that God had it in sense 2 (with Leibniz adding that God's omnibenevolence is what keeps him from breaking logic).

Thinking of omnipotence in sense 2 is thought to be able to defeat the free-will response to the problem of evil, but sense 1 is not.

Finally, many Christian philosophers (I'm really tempted to say all, but I'm sure there are some contrarians) argue that all of God's attributes, omnipotence, omnibenevolence, omniscience, etc., are really just one attribute. (Spinoza even with his weird ideas about God accepted this.) So, while we have multiple conceptions of that one attribute, there is, in reality, no distinction between omnipotence and omnibenevolence.
posted by oddman at 8:16 AM on September 15, 2010

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