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I was reading the SEP entry about the problem of evil, and there it says that What properties must something have if it is to be an appropriate object of worship, and if it is to provide reason for thinking that there is a reasonable chance that the fundamental human desires just mentioned will be fulfilled? A natural answer is that God must be a person who, at the very least, is very powerful, very knowledgeable, and morally very good.

The human desires mentioned are such as the desires that good will triumph, that justice be done, and that the world not be one where death marks the end of the individual’s existence.

Is omnipotency absolutely necessary for a God in a monotheistic religion, such as the one described by the SEP?

I'm not interested in those with an equally powerful counterpart, such as an evil one, for example.

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    But even to realize the specific human desires you mention, omnipotence doesn't not seems necessary? A god would just have to be able to make good triumph, make justice trump and make sure that death is not the end. But maybe that god would be incapable to prevent suffering along the way.
    – Frank
    Mar 3, 2023 at 18:43
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    It depends. Are we talking about actual monotheisms here, or are we talking about academic-theory monotheisms?
    – Mark
    Mar 4, 2023 at 19:38
  • I don't think it's necessary for monotheism broadly that God is omnipotent. But it is necessary for the Abrahamic traditions. Mar 4, 2023 at 22:13
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    @robertbristow-johnson Their god can't repel iron chariots.
    – J.G.
    Mar 5, 2023 at 16:00
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    I've long contended the omnipotent/omniscient/omnibenevolent model philosophers of religion use isn't necessarily representative of either theologians or typical theists.
    – J.G.
    Mar 5, 2023 at 16:15

6 Answers 6

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The SEP article on omnipotence seems to indicate that many analyses of theism nowadays tend to switch "omni-" out for "maxi-" in this context. Anselmian "perfect being" theology has won the day, so to say: God is simply defined as uniquely maximal over the hierarchy of agency, so in that sense it's "logically impossible" for God to occupy a lower level. (Actually, again with Anselm, you end up saying odd things like "God is identical to the level that God is on," which in Anselm was the equation of deity with eternity.)

It's not clear whether a definition from the power of creation would do the trick. A powerful enough version of the uncreated-created distinction-and-relation requires its ultimate holder to be a se, and it is seemingly contradictory to try representing a being who is a se but also possibly weaker than some other being. (To put it more finely, though, it might be that an a se being was thought to be counterfactually weaker than some impossible being, with all possible beings incapable of being stronger than the object of aseity.) However, if the full power of creation is ambiguous between being held by only uncreated beings and potentially being accessible by created beings, then it is not clear that we have lost out on a description of a divine being such that this being gained its stature. Marduk and the Jade Emperor in their respective narratives, I believe, achieved their rank in their victory over some cosmically menacing force, and many Christians did plainly adapt that imagery to their accounts of Christ (see e.g. John Milton's closing lines in Paradise Regained). And Ahura Mazda, before the Zurvanite development in that theology, was still unequal over Ahriman at least in the sense that Ahura Mazda's victory during the Frashokereti seemed entirely assured, the Saoshyant's role not representing a mortal contingency at all (anymore than most Christians, even the most unitarian among them (again e.g. Milton, perhaps), have ever thought it contingent that the Son of Man would fulfill his role as the Son of God).ئێزیدی

So the requirement of necessarily maximal power comes from the requirement of necessarily defeating the most powerful evil. Then, depending on one's understanding of maximal possibilities, one might or might not go on to full omnipotence simpliciter (an extreme enough theist might claim that God actually causes the law of non-contradiction to be true, say, and that if God did not do this, then some insane force of chaos would devour reality, so as if to say that God is "victorious over" logical hell: but then so as if to say that it is good that God stabilizes the logos of the universe, and then to accomplish this great good, God needs to have power over even the laws of logic, somehow).

ئێزیدیThe Yazidi narrative, if I remember correctly, is that the greatest of the angels (or angel-equivalents) became an object of reverence on account of its tears quenching the fires of Hell (for this, the Yazidis were slandered by H. P. Lovecraft as "devil-worshipers"). I don't recall what kind of power-level changes, if any, accompanied the ritual of this exaltation. But still, this angel-savior had to have enough power for its sadness to negate the rage of damnation: so would we ever want to say something like, "Only an all-powerful being can have tears strong enough to wash away the fires of Hell"?

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    Maybe I should tie in a citation-link for what I say about Milton. I mean, the nod to PR's end, that can be Googled right quick, but my contention that Milton was either unitarian or unitarian-aligned is more... contentious... yet between the description of the Son of God in both PL and PR, IDK... I'll look this up because I think I did before, too, and I think there is some analysis out there of this question. Mar 4, 2023 at 13:57
  • So it seems that the capabilities of logic are not enough for even formally characterising the different intuitions behind omnipotency without arriving at contradictions. Then I guess the plain-language answer to my question would be "we don't know" because we are still trying to find how to speak about it?
    – user64708
    Mar 4, 2023 at 14:00
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    @eirene there's a wacky puzzle in deontic logic, called the "logical-necessity-of-obligations" puzzle, where a very simple/naive system of deontic logic generates the conclusion that some entity permanently exists, or a permanent sequence of entities exists, such that they are under permanent obligation to uphold the Law of Non-contradiction. Now almost no logician, to my knowledge, accepts this conclusion rather than jettison the naive system, but theologians, on the other hand... Mar 4, 2023 at 14:03
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Omnipotence is a logically inconsistent notion so it cannot make any real sense.

A minimal God is what we think of as nature, which is potent as is possible but not omnipotent. So, no, a monotheist religion does not need to postulate omnipotence.

Why would anyone want to call nature 'God' is beyond me, but this is just the minimalist option. A God strictly in between omnipotent and nature would not be omnipotent.

Further, despite careless talk to the contrary, it seems that in monotheist religions, most believers do not in fact think of the god they believe in as omnipotent. Omnipotence is not just logically inconsistent, it also does not fit with most believers' personal experience of life and their belief that God is good.

EDIT - An even more minimalist notion of God would be to see some particular human being as God. Most gods are really just super-humans, or human-like things with superpowers, but we probably want our God to be the creator of the world, and Superman does not qualify.

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    Nice pointing nature as the minimal option.
    – user64708
    Mar 4, 2023 at 19:25
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    "Why" may be beyond you, but it wasn't beyond people who actually do view nature as God. (Admittedly, viewing individual aspects of nature as gods is far more common.)
    – Mark
    Mar 4, 2023 at 19:57
  • @Mark No, not quite the same thing. Pantheism is the view what we see as the universe or as nature is just what God looks like to us. There is nothing minimalist in such a god. What I am talking about is the idea that the universe or nature, as scientists think of it today, would be God. Not quite the same thing. Mar 5, 2023 at 16:23
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No. Consider the possibility that religions are a form of indoctrination perpetuated by special interest groups. The gods they promote have whatever properties are required to appeal to the indoctrinated, and more besides. There is no need for parsimony when attributing abilities to a god. You might therefore ask whether there is a minimum subset of abilities that a given god might require in order to maintain consistency with that god's associated storyline. To take the Catholic god, for example- he or she requires a number of powers, including the power to:

Cast out devils

Bring a person back to life

Feed a multitude with a small amount of fish and bread

Turn water into wine

Judge the soul of every person when they die (a full time occupation in itself, I imagine)

Listen to and selectively answer prayers

Maintain an eternal heaven and hell

Part the Red Sea

Create the Universe

Manifest to a small subset of humans to perform various functions, eg demonstrate fiery wrath etc

And so on.

Whether those powers amount to omnipotence, I would not care to say without listing them exhaustively (recognising that an exhaustive list of the facets of omnipotence might be an oxymoron).

Certainly it might be convenient for the perpetuators of a given religion to limit the powers of their gods in selective ways in order to furnish plausible explanations for the fact that many things happen in the world that a benevolent and omnipotent god might be expected to prevent.

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  • But if removing omnipotency can be a solution to the problem of evil (see here for example, also what you say at the end of the answer), then why most monotheistic religions postulate omnipotency? I though there might be some logic there so that they can't avoid it.
    – user64708
    Mar 4, 2023 at 13:35
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    @eirene I would say that logic and religion are not particularly compatible. Mar 4, 2023 at 15:03
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    @eirene Omipotence and monotheism appeals to order, divine providence, and purposeful existence in a way that the chaotic existence of the polytheism pantheon cannot. As an absurdist, the toughest burden to bear is that all of our deepest altruistic and moral impulses have no bearing on how how nature functions. Babies die, loved one suffer, and in the end we rot. Omnipotence and the afterlife is a carrot dangled to fool us into faith, usually with good intentions
    – J D
    Mar 5, 2023 at 5:17
  • 1. The "catholic god" is not defined as "he or she", 2. Creating the Universe out of nothing, and being beyond time (so no "full time occupation in itself, I imagine"), is many orders of magnitude over turning water into wine, mixing them is disingenuous.
    – vsz
    Mar 6, 2023 at 5:18
  • @vsz Disingenuous??? I juxtaposed them precisely to highlight the absurdity. Mar 6, 2023 at 9:53
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Simple Answer

NO! there is no logic based reason that a God must be omnipotent.

And as others have noted, historically and currently, almost no Gods are actually described as omnipotent when their believers describe what they do.

That many believers CLAIM omnipotence after providing non-omnipotent descriptions, is just an example of ideology overwriting what they then say about their views.

A little bit more exploration of the answer

The motives behind the claim of omnipotence in the SEP article, run directly into the observed Problem of Evil. An omnipotent and benevolent God would have created an ideal world, "the best of all possible worlds", and then would have no issue of needing to overcome evil in the first place.

Various apologisms to try to explain away the problem of evil sometimes assign the creation of evil to the creation itself ("the fall") or to the irremovability of evil form morality (all good is only relative, so evil is intrinsic to morality, or else accepting free will intrinsically means evil must exist), but these are fairly explicit failures to accept omnipotence.

An omnipotent being CREATES THE RULES for morality and for willing, so no, intrinsic evil is not "necessary" -- either from the definition of morality, or the nature of free will. To further reinforce this point, we can conceive of moralities that are not relative, and characters of beings who have free will but do not choose to do evil (God is generally proposed to have such a character, as do humans in heaven), so there is no logic based justification for these limits on God's imagination in doing creation.

Much apologism therefore implicitly assumes the universe was a found object, in which God's actions are constrained by the limits of how logic and morality and physics happen to work in our world. But even removing the power of creation from God fails to solve the Problem of Evil. A universe in which there is one dominant agent -- will over time reflect the desired and wishes of that agent. That agent could even be fairly weak -- but so long as it has the power of omniscience, to know where to apply limited force to leverage an outcome, then NEARLY everything can be done to optimize a universe even by a weak entity with omniscience.

Note that omniscience is not necessary for an near optimization of a universe, only for actual optimization to be achieved. A non-omniscient sole actor will over time approach an ideal universe. Omniscience just means no learning or second steps are needed to compensate for imperfect act.

What the motivates behind the question, and the Problem of Evil and other test cases, show us

The desire for a better world, shows that most humans readily recognize that morality does not require evil.

The moral investigation of our world shows that both good and evil exist in it, the Problem of Good provides the same issue for any belief in an evil God.

The failures of all the optimization test cases (problem of evil, problem of unclear communication, problem of flawed human character, etc) show that there IS no single actor deity with a moral agenda.

What theist options are therefore possible in our world?

Atheism -- there is no deity in our world

Deism -- an uncaring creator entity with no moral agenda for life, or possibly interactive theism without the God having any morality.

Polytheism -- if there are multiple competing Gods with conflicting agendas, they could by the muddling of many actors, prevent any moral clarity to be discernable in the universe as a whole.

Di-theism -- A Good God reflects our better moral impulses, but an evil God or force actively counters and checks the Good, such that our universe is in effective moral equilibrium and conflict.

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  • But a non-omnipotent God that didn't create reality could also be an option if we assume that we are not at the final iteration towards perfection, right?
    – user64708
    Mar 4, 2023 at 19:24
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    @eirene -- Well - non omnipotent AND non-omniscient IF we were close to but not at perfection, then yes. But I think the widespread evil in the world -- where scarcity forces all life to destroy other life -- shows we are not in the "asymptotic approach to perfection" mode.
    – Dcleve
    Mar 4, 2023 at 19:53
  • @eirene -- I am a theist who experiences a loving God in mystic communion. The only option which matches this experience is di-theism.
    – Dcleve
    Mar 4, 2023 at 19:55
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No. However, monotheism implies that God should have a considerable power.

If you accept God as a creator of the universe, it is incongruent to claim there are greater powers than himself. It is technically possible for a being to create something more powerful than itself, but if God's power is to be dwarfed by His creation, then he becomes a pathetic figure. One asks why they should not worship the universe as well, or whatever is in it that is so powerful, since it's more powerful than God. Perhaps God could be honored alongside the creation, as the creator... But you, now you end up with polytheistic view. But if you are a monotheist, there cannot be a challenge to God's supreme authority, therefore he must be strictly more powerful than his creation.

Moreover, strictly speaking, a being of limited power is hard to justify as deserving of worship and total devotion. Such a being might be placated, as pagans do with nature spirits, but one cannot seriously claim it as some supreme authority if it is not, in fact, supremely powerful. So much theology of monotheism falls apart. You can have a "God" which is not all-powerful, but your implied obligations to such a God would be vastly different.

Note that the key point here is that God's power must be sufficient for any practical purpose. It does not necessary matter if it's infinite. For example whether God can do illogical actions such as creating a stone too heavy for him to lift, is immaterial to the point of God's power over our universe and other pertinent beings (such angels and demons).

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    "if God's power is to be dwarfed by His creation, then he becomes a pathetic figure" - would you call a person "pathetic" if they create a machine more powerful than themselves? To the machine (if the machine can think), the person may seem weak, but to a mere cog, the person would have great power, and the person could still be more wise than the machine. And if a limited-power god would provide some benefits in exchange for worship, why would we refrain from worship, or worship an unthinking and uncaring universe instead? This does not make sense, except as an irrational fetisizing of power.
    – NotThatGuy
    Mar 5, 2023 at 2:43
  • @NotThatGuy You appear to have misunderstood my point. Otherwise, you would have asked "If a person created a machine more powerful than themselves, would you worship this person as a God and yet refuse to worship the machine?". The answer would be no.
    – Jessica
    Mar 7, 2023 at 0:20
  • The thing which makes me a very willing follower of God is that God is the paragon of Love -- the highest virtue and moral value possible. This is the essence of the attraction of theism -- the embrace of morality and alignment with a moral deity. Humans who worship power -- in particular because of the potential for personal power to flow down to them thru this worship-- become tyrants, psychopaths, dark witches, or satanists. Some of these are present in every organized religious institution, which muddles somewhat this point. But corruption of religion is explained by di-theism.
    – Dcleve
    Mar 10, 2023 at 15:26
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No, a monotheistic god is not necessarily omnipotent.

What properties must something have if it is to be an appropriate object of worship, and if it is to provide reason for thinking that there is a reasonable chance that the fundamental human desires just mentioned will be fulfilled? A natural answer is that God must be a person who, at the very least, is very powerful, very knowledgeable, and morally very good.

(And from there "very" becomes "omni" with no justification.)

Maybe this is a bit harsh, but this is nonsense.

Appropriate object of worship

All that's required for a god to be worshipped is for people to (a) believe they may receive some significant benefit in exchange for worship or (b) be grateful for some benefit they believe they already received (e.g. having been created). Frankly speaking, people may worship simply for the benefit of maintaining a status quo or because worship feels good, although these forms of worship may be less appropriate or justified (side note: this form of belief and worship may e.g. have originated from an earlier time, when events could be attributed to a god, yet we later found natural explanations for them).

The author of the above sentences may feel a significant benefit or gratefulness isn't a sufficient criteria for worship, and they're entitled to that opinion. But that doesn't mean no-one will worship given those criteria. I would probably also challenge anyone claiming they will only worship an all-powerful all-knowing and perfectly moral god, because this would imply giving up eternal life if that's offered by a good who doesn't have all 3 of those traits.

I'm reminded of the first episode of The Outer Limits (1995), where a scientist sets up a habitat for alien creatures, who worship him at some point. The scientist is certainly not all-powerful, all-knowing or perfectly moral, but the creatures nonetheless worship him. This fictional example certainly doesn't prove anything, but it does provide an example of worship that's presumably out of gratefulness and/or for some potential future benefits (for him providing the habitat, feeding them and protecting them, and continuing to do so), and the reason for worship should be fairly easy to understand and empathise with.

There are arguably cases of people worshipping other people (e.g. some dictators and cult leaders).

One can also note that it's possible for a god to exist that isn't "an appropriate object of worship". Believing that a god exists is distinct from whether you worship said god, and the former would meet the definition of monotheism.

Human desires

The quote also mentions the chance of a god to fulfilling the "fundamental human desires" mentioned earlier: "that good will triumph, that justice be done, and that the world not be one where death marks the end of the individual’s existence".

This does not, however, seem to have much to do with the question of whether a god exists or which traits they have. We may desire that justice be done with all our heart, but that doesn't mean a hypothetical god can or will fulfil that desire.

This just stinks of the appealing to consequences fallacy, i.e. believing that a god exists because that would imply that justice will be done, which would be like believing I'm rich because that would imply that I can buy a mansion.

Traits of a creator

So worship has a much lower bar than all-powerful, all-knowing and perfectly moral, and desires are irrelevant. But we might also ask whether a hypothetical god would only be capable of creating the universe, and would've done so in the way they did, if they were all-powerful, all-knowing and perfectly moral.

This seems to fall at the first hurdle. There is a lot of evil in the world, which is exactly what gives rise to the problem of evil that you linked to. If a god lacked one or more of those traits, there is no such problem, so this would be much more compatible with reality as it is.

More concretely, I see no reason a perfectly moral being would be needed to create an imperfect world.

As for all-powerful and all-knowing, one might look to human creations. Humans have created incredibly powerful machines, that are arguably more powerful than we are, and while we are able to "pull the plug" on the machines (for now), we still don't have perfect control or knowledge of the continued internal workings of those machines (various parts may fail without our knowledge, and we have limited ability to fix, mitigate or prevent that, and we may not fully understand why a machine behaves in a certain way). Given that humans aren't all-powerful and all-knowing with respect to their creation, it stands to reason that a god needn't be all-powerful and all-knowing with respect to their creation.

It might also be that both god and the universe were products of natural processes, in which case any properties of a creator would be irrelevant.

A god that isn't all-powerful or all-knowing can still be a personal god, as they only need to be able to interact with certain parts of reality in order to be such a god.

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  • The OT is a poor reference to use for why one should follow a God. It commingles the "worship a vain and powerful being because in its pleasure at the bootlicking it will then give one benefits" with the much more Zoroastrian "desire to ally and cleave to the Good, and the Agent who exemplifies Good in the universe". This is worship vs followership. And most people who embrace religion do so for the moral reasons of followership, not the morally tainted but pragmatic bootlicking of worship. Worship applies to an evil/arbitrary/morally flawed Cthulhu type God.
    – Dcleve
    Mar 10, 2023 at 15:40
  • @Dcleve Yeah, demanding worship is also not particularly in line with a tri-omni god. But then this is kind of baked into the common Christian belief that accepting Jesus as your saviour is the only path to salvation and that how good of a person you are doesn't matter all that much. You can be moral without religion, so that doesn't seem like a compelling reason to embrace religion (and I don't think I've heard anyone embrace Christianity for that reason). Eternal life is a compelling reason, but the desire for eternal life still isn't a rational reason to believe you'll receive eternal life.
    – NotThatGuy
    Mar 10, 2023 at 16:09
  • The phenomenon of "deconstruction", in which the majority of 20 something evangelicals have abandoned either their former churches, or Christianity altogether, is driven by the prioritization of moral followership over tainted worship. baptistnews.com/article/… careynieuwhof.com/… newrepublic.com/article/164906/…
    – Dcleve
    Mar 10, 2023 at 16:38

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