C. S. Lewis & Omnipotent God

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How far does God’s power extend? Is there any state of affair that an omnipotent God cannot bring about? These are the questions Christian theologians and philosophers have wrestled with throughout centuries.

God’s omnipotence prima facie appears to be challenged by the existence of pain and suffering in the world He created good. Was God not powerful enough to make sure that the creatures He created in His own image would not experience pain and suffering?

For C. S. Lewis existence of pain and suffering did not challenge God’s omnipotence as he once believed when he was a self-claimed atheist.  Pain and suffering is the result of mankind’s bad exercise of freedom of will endowed by God. Lewis contended:

God created things which had free will. That means creatures which can go either wrong or right. Some people think they can imagine a creature which was free but had no possibility of going wrong; I cannot. If a thing is free to be good it is also free to be bad. And free will is what has made evil possible. (2002, 47-48)

The reason God gave higher creatures free will is that it is  “the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having”(48) The world without free will creatures would indeed be free of pain and suffering, but it would also be a world without genuine “happiness of being freely, voluntarily united to Him[God] and to each other.”(ibid)

According to Lewis, it is logically impossible for God to create genuinely free creatures who freely choose to do the right acts only. Shadowing Augustine¹ and Thomas Aquinas², Lewis submitted “that not even Omnipotence could create a society of free souls without at the same time creating a relatively independent and “inexorable” nature.” (1996, 26) He understood omnipotence to encompass the power to bring about logical possible states of affair only. Lewis wrote,

It remains true that all things are possible with God: the intrinsic impossibilities are not things but nonentities. It is no more possible for God than for the weakest of His creatures to carry out both of two mutually exclusive alternatives; not because His power meets an obstacle, but because nonsense remains nonsense even when we talk it about God.”(ibid, 25)

He concluded that,

If you choose to say “God can give a creature free will and at the same time withhold free will from it, “you have not succeeded in saying anything about god: meaningless combinations of words do not suddenly acquire meaning simply because we prefix to them the two other words “God can”(ibid)

Rene Descartes would have disagree with Lewis. Descartes entertained the idea that our intellect is finite while God’s power is infinite, thus we cannot set bounds from our finite minds what God’s power can do. He wrote,

“I boldly assert that God can do everything which I conceive to be possible, but I am not so bold as to deny that he can do whatever conflicts with my understanding – I merely say that it involves a contradiction (LHM³ 241).

Descartes’ God, wrote Harry G. Frankfurt, is “a being for whom the logically impossible is possible.” (Frankfurt 1977, 44) God, for Descartes, is ex les. His power is beyond our reason and morality.  God, in this view, can bring about any state of affairs. If this is true, then contrary to Lewis, God could have created higher creatures with free will that freely and voluntarily choose the right things only.

The problem, with adopting Cartesian absolute power of God that could even bring about logical impossible states of affair, is that the problem of pain and suffering disappears with it. If God can bring about logical impossible states of affair, then it would follow that God could bring about what atheologians believe to be logically impossible, namely the coexistence of pain and suffering and omnicompetent and benevolent God.

Previous: C. S. Lewis & The Problem of Evil


[1] De Symbolo, I.i & De Civitate, V. x

[2] Summa I, Q. xxv, a. 3

[3] Rene Descartes’ letter to Henry More, 5 February 1549 in trans, and ed. Anthony Kenny(1970) Descartes Philosophical Letters. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Bib.

Frankfurt, Harry G. (1977)  “Descartes and the Creation of the Eternal Truths,” Philosophical Review 86 No. 1: 36-57

Lewis, C. S. (1996) The Problem of Pain. New York: Simon & Schuster.

____________ (2002) Mere Christianity. HarperCollins Publishers.

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18 thoughts on “C. S. Lewis & Omnipotent God

  1. Pingback: HOW COULD I HAVE EARNED A SUNSHINE AWARD AND THE SEMPER FIDELIS AWARD? | Citizen Tom

  2. Pingback: Omnipotence and Human Freedom | Mythos/Logos

  3. That helps clear it up. Thank you. However… I still am not clear about what you’re trying to say in the last sentence about the coexistence of pain and suffering under the watch of a loving god. I see little conflict there…as I alluded in my first comment about the path to enlightenment. But I also know that I’ve already established myself as a non-typical atheist. ha ha! 🙂

    • It gives me joy to be of little help to clear few things up. Dearly thank you Crystal. In the last sentence I was showing that atheologian who would deny Lewis’ understanding of God’s omnipotence and hold to the Cartesian view, namely God’s power is unlimited and can bring about even logically impossible states of affairs, then it would follow that there is no problem of evil, since the problem is that existence of God and existence of evil is “logically impossible”. But if God can bring about logical impossibilities, then the problem is solved.

      Theologians could give a better answer, viz., (a) it is possible that a loving God has morally sufficient reason to allow or permit pain and suffering. If (a) is possible, then pain/suffering and a loving God can coexists without any logical impossibilities.

      I hope this clear a bit more Crystal.

  4. I do not believe in the ‘faulty humans’ theory. Humans make humans faulty. God is omnipotent only so fare as men and women chose to walk with him. Walk away from him and God begins to lose his power – God and human beings must walk hand in hand. It’s the only way.

  5. Your premise is a surprise to me. I wouldn’t have guessed that great thinkers who are also believers would wonder how far God’s power extends. I have always assumed that those of faith assigned limitless power to Him. Why was I taught from a very young age, to chant omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent?

    You give examples of a message, but I feel like you don’t actually come out and say it: God is not all-powerful.

    And can that be true for you? Or for Lewis?

    I feel like the whole point of faith falls apart if God isn’t omnipotent. I can fully subscribe to Lewis’ perspective on free will. I read Lewis’ words to say that it was His choice to make humans like He did, and not because of His limited ability. Likewise, I am in agreement with the sense of Descartes’ belief: that we humans are not in a position to judge the wisdom of what God is doing, simply because we don’t get it.

    I have more satisfaction believing that the story would be thus: God *can* create any old thing that strikes His fancy, and He *chose* to make faulty human beings. Maybe it’s an experiment, or entertainment for the angels, or maybe the only way to enlightenment is to experience pain.

    • Crystal, it is pleasure to answer such profound question you set on the table. Lewis followed a traditional understanding of God’s omnipotence which is found in Augustine and Aquinas. Though I agree, like you with Descartes position on our limits to fathom God’s omnipotence, none in philosophical theology followed Descartes definition of absolute power of God, that can do even metaphysical impossibilities e.g. Make a married bacholer or 2 + 3 = 6.

      Augustine, Aquinas and Lewis defined God’s omnipotence as ability to bring about all metaphysical possible state of affairs. The example above are not states of affairs that can be brought about. There is no power a being could have to do so because they are, using Lewis word, nonsensual combination of words.

      I agree with Lewis but with modifications. I would define God’s omnipotence as maximal power a being could possess. It is the ability to bring about all metaphysical possible state of affairs that are not a liability to other God’s attributes(i.e. morally perfect, omnipresence, omniscient, omnibenovent, &c.) as the greatest conceivable being. Example the author of Hebrews(6:18) states that God cannot lie. From my definition, God cannot lie not only because it is metaphysically impossible but also because it is a liability to God’s moral perfection. Another example God cannot chose to cease to exist because it is a liability to God’s omniprence and necessary existence.

      God’s power is limited, but the limitation is not in ability but liability. Expounding this, I borrowed Thomas Morris example with modifications. Think of John and Jane. Jane is flawless in Maths, she always scores 100% and 100% only. John is like most of us, 50% here, 89% there when we worked really hard &c., Say Jane cannot score less than 100%. Jane is limited to score 100% and nothing less. John can score less. Does this make John better than Jane in Maths? Surely not. Jane not scoring less is not an ability but a liability. So God not being able to do something is not lack of ability, like Jane ability in Maths, but a liability.

      I hope I answered your question.

  6. Scatterwisdom: But God gave us a brain, and using it in service to Him might mean we should be doing some philosophy, which is after all, one of the highest uses of our mind. Theology, the ‘Queen of the sciences’, requires philosophy.

  7. A very compelling debate. My first response is to side with Lewis, because his argument makes the most sense to me. But the Bible shows abundant evidence of God’s use of paradoxical truth and this could very well apply to the question of free will.

    You’ve certainly given me something to ponder.

  8. Philosophers opinions are only opinions. The more philosophy one explores, the realization is that our minds do not compare to our creator. King Solomon”s advice was to fear God ( be aware that your will be judged ) and obey the Ten Commandments. Strive to find peace and joy during the short time span of your life..Everything else (philosophy included )is just chasing after the wind.

  9. It ws Lewis who validated my philosophical agreement with the doctrine of free-will as well. Does this mean you are no longer a Reformed Calvinist (in it’s modern sense at least)?

    • Hi David, Lewis understand of free will is that of a libertarian. I am a soft compatibalist. I find hard to reconcile libertarian free will with many biblical passages that appears to contradict such an idea and mostly our bondage to sin which I believe includes our freedom of will.

  10. Although generally overlooked, the omnipotence of God is revealed in Jesus Christ’s death on the cross, viz.: a CRITICAL MASS with once and for all aftereffects, including changes in people “who look at him whom they pierced” from “born of the flesh” to “born spiritually of the Spirit”. (John 3: 1-15; 19: 34-37)

    · Demo of Jesus’ rights of giving up his life, and going back up to the place where he was before, a.k.a., glory, “to draw people to himself”

    · The tearing of the curtain in the Temple into two from top to bottom

    · Shaking of the earth

    · Splitting of rocks

    · Breaking open of graves

    · Raising to life of many of God’s people who had died

    · Fear and deference of eyewitnesses

    (Matt. 27: 50-56)

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