How can Human Beings be Free if God is All-Powerful?



For many people this question is one of the thorniest in their minds, because it seems that no matter which side of the question they land on, they have to give up something of vital importance. So, let’s start there: what’s at stake in this question? Why does it bother us so much?

Let’s start with God. The first worry is that were God to grant human beings the freedom to act independently of himself, then his omnipotence would be compromised. We are told that God is either in control, or he isn’t. If he is, then it seems that human beings cannot be free to do as they will, because God’s will would always trump theirs. Their “freedom” must, at best, be illusory.

But there’s a second worry about God: if God controls everything, then he must also control evil. In fact, it would seem that he must be its originating cause. But how can the all-good God be the ultimate source of evil? It would seem that God can either be all powerful, or all good, but not both. To avoid this dilemma, some theists have endorsed a curious moral doctrine concerning God. They say that whatever God does is good just because he does it. As such, God could do things that we would understand as immoral, but, for him, they would be good just because he does them. God’s ways are higher than our ways, we are told, and who are we to morally judge God? Of course, if there were no difference between God’s being good and God’s being evil, then we really just find ourselves back on one side of the original dilemma, because God just isn’t good anymore. And if he isn’t good, then it seems like we might be worshiping him only because he’s too big and powerful to ignore.

Let’s move to man. Here the worry is that if man were not free to act, then God could not hold men morally responsible for their actions. To be responsible means to be “able to respond.” If you aren’t able—because all of your actions are caused by someone else—then you are simply a puppet, and it’s the puppet master who is responsible. Loss of responsibility has consequences for areas outside morality, of course, because it’s hard to see how our lives could be all that meaningful if we were just robots following a pre-programmed divine storyline. In fact, it’s hard to see how we could even trust our own thoughts if they were merely the result of antecedent causes that ultimately originated outside human nature.

So, we’ve got quite the conundrum, don’t we? It would seem that if we maintain God’s total control, independence, and omnipotence, we lose all ethical value as well as human significance. Alternatively, if we uphold man’s freedom and moral responsibility, as well as the meaningfulness of divine and human goodness, we suffer the catastrophic loss of divine sovereignty. In essence, we either lose man or we lose God!

Since neither of those options seem very attractive to most people, you will often find this curious tendency to hold the different parts of this dilemma in juxtaposition, something like, “Yes God is sovereignly in control, yes, man is free and responsible, and, yes, this is a contradiction, but these matters are just too high for human reasoning!” Essentially this person admits that his views are incoherent and settles for the view that God is “greater than incoherence.” To justify believing contradictions, some of these people have even invented new terminology, calling these contradictions “antinomies” (anti-law), and saying that while antinomies limit us, they do not limit not God. If God can break natural laws and do the miraculous, then surely, they say, he can break logical laws in even greater miracles. Thus, we are told that God can hold us responsible for evil that we could not possibly help, and doing so just has to be accepted. Sometimes the words “by faith” are added to the “just has to be accepted” to soften the punch.

If God is just a powerful tyrant who forces us into saying that his tyranny is his love for us, then we are no different than the North Korean people competing amongst themselves in hysterical emotional displays to show the dear leader how much they can pretend to believe a lie.


We cannot accept that contradictions are true of anything, including God, because a contradiction makes the same thing true and false, yet God is truth.

Well! If you’re anything like me, you find these alternatives wretched. Why? For so many reasons. First, we cannot accept that contradictions are true of anything, including God, because a contradiction makes the same thing true and false, yet God is truth. So, that’s out, completely. The logical laws aren’t like natural laws, because the logical laws are eternally part of God’s nature, since truth is God’s nature. So, while God can make a man walk on water, he cannot make the same man walk on water and not walk on water in the same way at the same time. If you think about it, asking God to perform a contradiction is asking God to do and then not do the same thing, which essentially means you aren’t asking him to do anything! God’s power means he can do anything, not that he can do nothing. So, contradictions are out, totally. We cannot take refuge in word games like “antinomies.” Contradictions are contradictions, and they are always, and necessarily, false.

If God is just a powerful tyrant who forces us into saying that his tyranny is his love for us, then we are no different than the North Korean people competing amongst themselves in hysterical emotional displays to show the dear leader how much they can pretend to believe a lie.

We also cannot abandon the meaningful of divine goodness. If God is just a powerful tyrant who forces us into saying that his tyranny is his love for us, then we are no different than the North Korean people competing amongst themselves in hysterical emotional displays to show the dear leader how much they can pretend to believe a lie. Tyranny produces fear, but perfect love casts out fear. Thus, tyranny cannot be love. God’s love means that he seeks the true good for us. If we give that up, then we lose the whole point in loving and worshiping God. If we give that up, then the only difference between Satan and God is a question of greater power. Yet that’s exactly what Satan would love us to believe, that he got shafted because he just wasn’t quite strong enough!

We also cannot give up God’s omnipotence, because God must be the uncaused cause of everything else. The only way to be an uncaused cause is if nothing could in principle cause you. And the only thing that cannot in principle be caused is an omnipotent being. Thus, God’s eternal status as the Creator depends upon his being omnipotent. So, God must be omnipotent.


If someone really were controlled by someone else, say by a drug that makes him perfectly compliant, then we would go after the man pulling the strings and feel pity—not condemnation—for his puppet.

Finally, we cannot give up man’s moral responsibility, because our entire conception of guilt is that we ought to feel guilty for what we should have done but didn’t do. We had to have known the right thing, and we had to have had the capacity to have done the right thing. Otherwise, we just aren’t responsible. This lies at the bedrock of human civilized behavior, at how we get along with and appraise one another. If someone really were controlled by someone else, say by a drug that makes him perfectly compliant, then we would go after the man pulling the strings and feel pity—not condemnation—for his puppet. To be morally responsible means that, all things being equal, we could have done otherwise. But that’s just the doctrine of moral freedom or freedom of the will, as it is sometimes called. So, we cannot abandon man’s freedom or responsibility for his behavior.

So, let’s sum up what we cannot give up: truth, God’s goodness, God’s omnipotence, man’s freedom and his moral responsibility. What remains that stands against these ideas? Only one thing, really: the perception that God’s omnipotence implies that he must cause and control everything, ruling out human freedom, and with it, human responsibility. If God’s omnipotence entails that he causes everything—every being and every event—then we are not free, and God—not us—is responsible for our behavior.


Our imagined determinist is trying to preserve God’s power by preventing him from doing something, namely creating free creatures.

So, does God’s omnipotence imply that God must control everything, ruling out human freedom? The first really curious thing to note here is that our imagined determinist (that’s the person who thinks that God controls everything) is trying to preserve God’s power by preventing him from doing something, namely creating free creatures. But, surely, the creation of free agents is a demonstration of greater power than a deity who could not do so! Thus, a truly omnipotent being would have to be able to create free creatures! If he could not create us, then he isn’t even God!

But secondly, why would we believe that God’s power implies that he must control everything? If God chose to use his omnipotent power to create free agents, then he correlatively chose not to control everything, because that is what it means to create free agents! An omnipotent being can do either option: create a totally controlled universe without free agents or create a universe not entirely controlled because it has free agents. Both are consistent with God’s omnipotence. So, does God’s omnipotence mean that God must control all of our actions? No, most definitely not. God could have created the universe that way, but then we would merely be the characters in a story that he has written. We would not be free. We would not be authentic persons. And we would be incapable of genuinely choosing to love him, for love must be freely granted to be genuine. In which case we would also be guiltless, because we would not possess the power of choice.

However, though God could have created an entirely robotic universe, it is a fact that he did not. We know this because here we are, free and capable of choosing between good and evil, free to choose for or against the love of God. Furthermore, we know that God recognizes that we are free persons capable of choosing between good and evil, because he holds us morally responsible for what we do. Since we are free agents, we know that God chose the free agent/less-control option for his creation, something entirely within his prerogative. God made a universe with at least some creatures capable of genuinely loving him back as persons.


Any time God does anything whatsoever, he limits himself. Why? Because to have done anything is not to have done something else, as well as not to have undone the thing that he did do.

Does God’s having created a universe with free persons limit him? Yes, but only insofar as he chooses the limitation in creating. Note this well: any time God does anything whatsoever, he limits himself. Why? Because to have done anything is not to have done something else, as well as not to have undone the thing that he did do. Some people conceive of a God so powerful that he could not do anything, because to use his power would be to limit it. That conception of omnipotence is entirely incoherent, since the idea of God’s power is most definitely that he can do things, all kinds of things, anything that he wishes to do. But whatever God does, he has done it, and not undone it! He is committed to what he has done. Does that limit him? Given the meaning of “limit” that our imagined determinist has in mind, not remotely. Since the use of omnipotent power is a wholly unlimited expression of power, it cannot be limited if we mean by that “restrictive.” And that is just what our deterministic critic here has in mind, that were God to create free creatures, he would have to put up with what they do, that he would be restricted in what he could do to them. All of which is true, of course, only that that’s not a criticism, but the definition of creation, a definition that holds true of non-free creatures as well. For if God creates squirrels, then he did not unmake squirrels. Any time God creates anything, he backs what he has made (and, correlatively, the decision to not unmake that thing). So, our imagined determinist is really stuck with a bizarre dilemma of his own imposition: either God is “omnipotent” (in his weird sense) and cannot create, or else he can create but loses his omnipotence.

The way out of this dilemma is to properly define omnipotence in the first place, such that God can create things, and that this is “limiting” only in the sense that God faithfully backs what he does. Thus, if God creates free persons with the capacity to choose against him, then he backs that decision by permitting their rejection.

In summary, here’s the whole thing in a nutshell. God is perfectly good and loves his creation, meaning he seeks the good for that creation. He created free creatures, an astonishing demonstration of omnipotent power, and holds them morally responsible to choose good over evil. In no way does God’s omnipotence undermine the possibility of free will and moral responsibility. On the contrary, only omnipotence could have created freedom and responsibility. Thus, God’s omnipotence is completely compatible with his having created free and morally responsible creatures.

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