The Myth of Divine Omnipotence
Robinson College, Lent 2017
It’s been three years since the concept of Omnipotence has featured in a sermon at Robinson, and since this term we are considering myths about Christian scripture – the opportunity to revisit the myth of omnipotence is too hard to pass over. Atheist and Christian alike tend to regard the Almighty God of Christianity as thereby Omnipotent – when according to Scripture, the God of Israel is the exact opposite. Yes, the God of Scripture is ‘Almighty’ but that is a wildly different quality.
In the Roman world, omnipotence was an attribute pagan divinities, and with the advent of Caesar Augustus, became an attribute of the Roman Emperor. Omnipotence refers to human power multiplied into infinity: the power of the tyrant is unlimited, so resistance is futile and might is right. And of course, when that pagan category is read into the God of Scripture, it rapidly becomes a seemingly irrefutable argument against the existence of the God of Scripture.
That is, if God is both omnipotent (all powerful) and omnibenevolent (all loving), how can he allow suffering? But omnipotence in its earliest manifestation did not mean all-powerful in this sense. It would be like asking Emperor Augustus the same question – if you are the most powerful being, why is there still suffering in your empire? It makes no sense at all. Christ himself did not become omnipotent until he had been rebranded as a Roman emperor in the fourth century AD. From this point, Christianity becomes the dominant religion in the West, and once again, across the empire, we have the assurance that Might is Right. Omnipotence speaks not only of the extent of one’s power, but of the nature of that power. To thrust tyrannical forms of power into the hands of Christ, is seen by growing numbers of Christians as an act of blasphemous distortion.
With this distortion, this Christ – as an omnipotent figure – would gradually devolve into the divinity who controls every flap of every insect wing, every flight path of every pollen grain, every course of every bacterial cell. This is the god who carries bullets from gun barrels into victims, who supplies water for tsunamis and who nurtures cancerous tumours in those we love. Thankfully, in his kind-hearted moments he also guides believers to parking spaces, grants visions of saints in your latte and, on exam result day, enables lazy but prayerful students to discover the existence of skin on their teeth. To many Christians in my tradition, this omnipotent and schizophrenic deity is the image projected by those seeking to defend the conviction that Might is Right. We won, so we were right – get over it snowflakes… Might is Right – and if it doesn’t look or seem or feel right, it’s only because life’s too complicated for us pathetic earthlings to understand what’s really going on.
Well, surely, God is omnipotent for good reason – to bring peace. After all, he maketh wars to cease unto the ends of the earth (Psalm 46). But then – so did Caesar Augustus, and so too, for that matter, did Sylvester Stallone. For as any self-respecting historian knows, the Cold War only really came to an end with that emotional and heart-felt speech at the end of Rocky IV, with the Russian Crowds, the Politburo and the US president looking on. But as we know, the embers of the Cold War are being busily fanned at present – and throughout history wars have not ceased. Innocent people are born into poverty and violence, and face nothing but hardship until a bloody and violent death – all while there is an ostensibly omnipotent and all-loving God pulling the strings of the universe.
This is a long way from the Biblical image of Israel’s God, embodied in the figure of a pathetic, failed revolutionary, crucified on a hill outside the Holy City. A victim of religious power, crushed under the weight of a Roman justice system, and a world hell-bent on achieving its ends with cold, hard, manipulative, coercive power.
You can perhaps picture the smug High Priests gloating before the naked and mutilated would-be messiah. Maybe they had a wisp of orange hair – shaking their heads at the crucified and pathetic figure on the cross, assured that Might is Right. They had shown that ‘we have all the best doctrines, we have the best. All the teaching of Jesus, failed: Love your enemies? Total Disaster! The Kingdom of God is not even a real kingdom. It’s fake. It’s a fake kingdom. It doesn’t even have any land. It’s true. It’s true, believe me it’s true.’
According to the Gospel narrative, the figure executed as a political dissident was the embodiment of the Almighty God of Israel. For the followers of this Jesus, that crucifixion marked the death of Israel itself, and utter exposure to a world where fairness has no place, where might is right, where there is no overcoming omnipotence, where the strong exploit the weak, where Frank Underwood gets away with murder because he’s powerful. No alternative to the way things are.
The crucifixion destroys the belief that Israel’s God is Almighty, and vindicates the belief that Roman power is Omnipotent. The death of Christ is the perfect demonstration that Omnipotence wins – there is no alternative to the way things are.
Throughout his life, this Jesus had embodied an alternative power dynamic. Do not resist an evil man, turn the other cheek, go the second mile – all these high sounding gentle moral aphorisms are invalidated at the cross. Omnipotence wins. There is no alternative.
Jesus had exhorted his followers to love their enemies – but those enemies had beaten him, crucified him, and were gloating over their victory. Omnipotence wins. There is no alternative.
The choir will soon sing about the failed Messiah, abandoned by his friends, and his father. Alone on the cross with the jeering of his enemies. On Good Friday, omnipotence wins. There is no alternative.
Of course, the Christian story does not end at the cross, but during Lent it does. There can be no leapfrogging from Lent to a happy ending. For the followers of this Christ, Lent symbolises the sheer darkness of failure, mortality, powerlessness. A darkness that runs far deeper than the absence of salt and vinegar crisps. A darkness that has to be properly inhabited before Easter Sunday has any meaning. Whatever meaning it might have will be the subject of our Easter Term series. But on Good Friday, nobody knew Sunday was coming. Omnipotence had won. There was no alternative.