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The Big Question

Is God really all-powerful?

By Harold Wells

Another hurricane and massive floods in Atlantic Canada. Wildfires in British Columbia and extreme heat in Russia. Horrendous cyclones and floods in Pakistan and Australia. Is this just nature behaving with its usual indifference to human well-being, or (more likely) a sign of human-made climate change? Whatever the cause, we find ourselves asking, “Where is the all-powerful God?”

Cries of protest are heard in hospitals. A young father has been praying ardently for his little girl to be healed of leukemia. Still, she has died miserably. Now he angrily questions not God’s power, but God’s love: “Don’t talk to me about God’s love! If God had wanted to, God could have saved her. God just didn’t care enough.”

In view of God’s non-intervention on behalf of the victims of torture and concentration camps, leprosy, schizophrenia, the sexual abuse of children, and on and on, one may sympathize with the 19th-century French writer Stendhal: “The only excuse for God is that he doesn’t exist.”

For those of us who, in spite of all this, persist in the faith that “We are not alone. We live in God’s world,” we must ask: Is God really all-powerful? Or if all-powerful, does God truly love us?

Today we are far from Calvin, our founding Reformed theologian of the 16th century, who wrote that the “heavenly Father so embraces all things under his power — so governs them at will by his nod — so regulates them by his wisdom, that nothing takes place save according to his appointment.” From a democratic mindset, this arbitrary heavenly monarch lacks all credibility. Feminist theology has taught us to be suspicious of any macho celestial patriarch, who legitimizes the worst kind of power over others. Such a belief is undermined also by our scientific mentality, which rightly looks for natural explanations.

If we still “believe in God, who has created and is creating” (as our creed declares), what sort of God is this? Speaking biblically, God dwells as Spirit both beyond and within Creation. The immensity, order and beauty of the universe offer a glimpse of the Creator as the incomprehensible Mystery, beyond all imagining, yet mindful and purposeful, the eternal Source of all power and the inner intelligence of the created order. Nothing exists beside God that can limit God or finally defeat God’s purposes. In this sense, God is “all-powerful.”

Christians also confess that “God . . . has come in Jesus, the Word made flesh.” Jesus is our window into God. He is a compassionate human being who forgives freely, heals the sick and identifies with the oppressed and poor. He speaks with divine authority yet endures pain and despair and dies a terrible death. We are told in an early hymn that Jesus “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness” (Philippians 2:6-7).

In Jesus, we discover that God is not only powerful but also vulnerable and self-emptying. If this is the character of God, as revealed in Jesus, we may say that God — even in the act of creating — is also self-emptying and self-limiting.

It was the post-Auschwitz theologian Jürgen Moltmann who (drawing on a theme of historic Jewish and Christian thought) spoke of the act of creation as a self-limitation of the infinite God, allowing space for a finite creation to exist without dominating or absorbing it. Human beings and all creatures are permitted their own autonomous, evolutionary self-development. By the very act of creating an orderly yet spontaneous universe, God limited God’s own self. We cannot presume to know what God can or cannot do. But, given an ordered creation, God cannot do everything.

God’s interaction with the world, as we see it in Jesus, is gentle and hidden. Even Jesus’ resurrection was a quiet, hidden event that did not coerce us to believe or obey. Surely God moves as Spirit in and through natural processes. We cannot, however, expect spectacular supernatural interventions to solve our small or great problems. No almighty hand from above will fix our climate change problem, heal all diseases or establish peace and justice in the world. We are called to be God’s agents in the world, “to live with respect in Creation, to love and serve others, to seek justice and resist evil.”

Through all our struggles and doubts, the loving, self-emptying God whom we know in Jesus is the God we can love and trust: “In life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us.”

Rev. Harold Wells is professor emeritus in systematic theology at Emmanuel College in Toronto.

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