I Have Never Been Omnipotent, But I Have Loved

March 21, 2008
By

Consider the following lists of attributes of God:

  • Omnipotent
  • Loving
  • Merciful
  • Gracious
  • Omniscient
  • Just
  • Omnipresent
  • Unchanging
  • Truthful / Cannot lie
  • No Respecter of Persons
  • Slow to Anger
  • Long-suffering / Patient
  • Infinite
  • Eternal
  • Sovereign

It seems to me that we can actually split this list into two lists: those attributes of God that we share with Him and those attributes of God that we don’t share, at least at this time.

Attributes of God that We Don’t Share Attributes of God that We Do Share – In Imperfect Forms
  • Omnipotent
  • Omniscient
  • Omnipresent
  • Unchanging
  • Infinite
  • Eternal (i.e. in this temporal life – thanks Nick)
  • Loving
  • Merciful
  • Gracious
  • Just
  • Truthful / Cannot lie
  • No Respecter of Persons
  • Slow to Anger
  • Long-suffering / Patient

What’s interesting to me is that these two lists may well define an important difference between Mormon and other Christian religion’s views of God. It is my experience that many of the top objections other Christians have towards Mormons are that they aren’t so sure we believe in the first list (i.e. Attributes of God that We Don’t Share) in the same way they do.

For example, other Christians might object that since Mormons believe God cannot create “Intelligence” (a term we don’t really define) out of nothing as in D&C 93:29 that must mean that we don’t really believe God is omnipotent; that or else He’s not omnipotent in the way they’d like to see the word defined. Likewise the idea that God has a body (D&C 130:22) would seem to imply to other Christians that Mormons don’t really believe God is omnipresent.[1] And if in Mormon theology God was once not God[2] then can we really say He’s “unchangeable” or “Eternal” in the “orthodox” sense of the word, can we? Heck, some Mormons even argue that maybe God doesn’t really know what the future holds for us individually and is thus not Omniscient in the “orthodox” sense.[3]

No wonder other Christians aren’t so sure that Mormons really believe in that first list of attributes of God.[4]

On the other hand, Mormons aren’t so sure other Christians really believe that God is everything on the second list (i.e. Attributes of God that We Do Share) in the same way that Mormons understand those terms. From our point of view other Christians seem to believe in a God that makes other beings solely to worship Him out of some sense of desire to be worshipped. For the more Calvinistic Christians, it seems to us that they teach of a God that could save everyone if He but chose to do so, but has decided not to. Even the more Arminian Christians believe that once a person dies God no longer allows them to repent and choose Christ to avoid Eternal torment in hell for the rest of forever. (With hell often being boiled in a pit of fire and brimstone besides.)

Even amongst themselves these matters are often rather murky for other Christians. For example, one very influential Christian teacher, A.W. Pink[5], went so far as to teach that God does not in fact love those that He sends to hell. Why should He since they had no redeeming characteristics at all?[6]

Yes, it’s easy to see that from a Mormon point of view other Christians might not really believe in that second list of God’s attributes.

As it turns out – and I know many of you may be shocked by this fact – I’ve never actually been omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, unchanging, nor infinite. I am not even sure how to really comprehend, much less define, those terms properly. Even if I could come up with a working definition I’d have no basis for knowing if I got the right definition – from God’s point of view – or not.

I’m also pretty sure that not a single Christian that has attacked Mormons for not really believing in the first list has ever possessed any of those attributes either. So I’m going to venture an opinion that their definitions of those terms are really just a guess and might be incorrect.

On the other hand, I have loved before. I have been merciful before. I have been just at times. I have told the truth on occasion. I’ve been known to be gracious now and again. While I’m none of these things perfectly, I have a pretty good idea what they are and even what they would be like in a perfect form.

When I pointed out to my Evangelical/Calvinistic friend that there was no way to reconcile a perfectly loving God to one that choose for us if we are saved or damned and predestinated us to that choice, he admitted he knew of no way to reconcile that “paradox.”[7] And yet, because I understand the concept of love, I’m pretty sure there is no meaningful sense of the word “love” in which such an action could ever be reconciled to love –no matter what extenuating circumstances might exist to justify it.

When I asked a group of Christians online about why a perfectly loving God would not allow people in hell to accept Christ and end their torment, they really had no answer to give me outside of the obvious: that’s the way it is and we mortals just can’t understand God’s love. Again, I am doubtful that such acts could be considered “loving” or “merciful” or frankly even just “justice” no matter what extenuating circumstances might exist.

I personally believe that other Christians have it backward: one can correctly define God in terms of the second list (attributes we share with God) but that it’s impossible to be sure you’ve defined him correctly in terms of the first list (attributes we do not share with God) because we have no meaningful experience with such attributes.


Notes:

[1] Mosser and Owens, two Evangelical scholars, write: “For example, what Latter-day Saints such as Robinson refer to as “omnipresent” would probably be more accurately described as ‘omni-influential’ (compare D&C 88:12-13, 41). What he terms omniscient as ‘omni-aware.’” (link)

[2] A debatable point in Mormon theology, but let’s assume the worse for the sake of argument.

[3] The idea that God doesn’t know if we’ll choose Him or not doesn’t seem to be very common amongst Mormons, but it’s not a belief that is rooted out or particularly looked down upon because of our openness of interpretation on this point.

[4] On the other hand, if I want to get technical — which I do – I’m not so sure orthodox-Christians believe God is omnipotent, omnipresent, nor omniscient according to their own definitions either. For example, they don’t believe God can make humans into gods because there is an ontological divide between creator and created; so God is apparently not omnipotent. They do believe it’s possible for a person to be separated from God — that’s what hell is — so apparently God isn’t actually omnipresent. They believe God needed to become incarnate to learn about the human experience so He could succor us, so He wasn’t always omniscient. Oh, and God was incapable (i.e. not omnipotent) of forgiving us without sacrificing Jesus.

[5] “Biographer Iain Murray observes of Pink, ‘the widespread circulation of his writings after his death made him one of the most influential evangelical authors in the second half of the twentieth century.’” From Wikipedia article on A.W. Pink.

[6] “One of the most popular beliefs of the day is that God loves everybody, and the very fact that it is so popular with all classes ought to be enough to arouse the suspicions of those who are subject to the Word of Truth. … No matter how a man may live-in open defiance of Heaven, with no concern whatever for his soul’s eternal interests, still less for God’s glory, dying, perhaps with an oath on his lips-notwithstanding, God loves him, we are told. So widely has this dogma been proclaimed, and so comforting is it to the heart which is at enmity with God we have little hope of convincing many of their error.” A.W. Pink’s The Sovereignty of God, Chapter 11.

[7] He was actually more blunt than this. He said that he hated that doctrine and wished it wasn’t that way, but that’s what the Bible teaches. He said he didn’t know how to reconcile the seeming contradiction but he was convinced that he just didn’t understand the concept of a perfectly loving God well enough to understand in what sense it was loving to not save people from hell when one could have.

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  • http://bmo-web.com Benjamin O

    Can you show where in the scriptures Omnipresence is claimed? I’m a bit murky on that one (really). Especially since I’m also reasonably certain that I’ve read LDS writings that claim that it isn’t really an attribute of God (and I’m dead certain that almost all LDS writers would be more comfortable with omni-influential).

    Otherwise, great list, and great article.

  • http://mormonmatters.org Nick Literski

    Shouldn’t “eternal” be in the second column? In fact, I’d say we share completely in the “eternal” nature of deity. That was Joseph Smith’s whole point in D&C 93 and the King Follet discourse.

  • Kent

    Benjamin, the light of Christ, or God’s glory is “omnipresent”.

    D&C 88
    12 Which light proceedeth forth from the presence of God to fill the immensity of space—
    13 The light which is in all things, which giveth life to all things, which is the law by which all things are governed, even the power of God who sitteth upon his throne, who is in the bosom of eternity, who is in the midst of all things.

    Often we speak of God being a spirit with a glorified body, but we leave out the important element of glory. Joseph Smith said that the light “gathered” to Moroni and then he left through a conduit. When was the last time you saw light “gather”? I like to think of glory (the light of Christ) as bandwidth and sensors all in one. I also believe that this glory is shared among the godhead and is what is meant by an “indwelling” relationship, and is how they are “one”.

  • Kent

    Bruce, I really think you are on to something here. I agree with your assumption that as Mormons we are more focused on the personal attributes we share than the “divine” attributes.

  • Anon

    I don’t think the characterization of Christian thought on these matters has been wholly well represented.

    First, Christians unanimously believe that this life is the time to accept God. This sentiment is strongly carried throughout the Book of Mormon as well (Alma 34:32, etc.). In fact, it seems clear to me, if the Book of Mormon were the word of God that Moroni 8:22 addresses the mercy of Christ for those who have died without the law. (It does not only apply to infants.)

    Nevertheless many Christians belive that the Bible _does_ affirm the mercy and glory of God for those “heathen” who we may think don’t know God. Romans 1:18-22 teaches that God’s great existence can be known and seen from what we observe in nature and heavens. Furthermore in Acts 10 we see that the pagan Cornelius’ good works were seen as justification for his righteousness before God. God then revealed thru Peter for Cornelius’ need to take the next step to come to Christ and accept His free gift. We do not know all how God, in his omniscience, may know of each person’s ability and willingness to accept Christ, other than we know that His mercy is extended toward those to turn to Him. It is not ours to judge who had saving faith before they died. But it seems clear to me from the Bible that God has ultimate power and desire to seek out and turn to those who turn to Him.

    We also know from Luke 12, that God punishes those who sin against a law they know is greater punishment than those who sin without knowledge. Sin still separates us from God whether we know the law or not. Those who can see the testament of God’s love and turn to Him, even if not toward Christianity, can obtain righteousness before God. However, God’s condemnation of those who reject Him in this life is just. The concept of Hell can be seen as God giving us exactly what we desire, eternal separation from Him. Paul teaches all have been given the testimony of God, and each are given this testimony, and the chance to accept it, while they live. Furthermore God’s ways are mysterious in how he can and will bring the gift of Christ to those whom He already knows are His own and will accept it.

    Why is it that Mormonism’s temple work is seen as a “True” practice showing God’s mercy where Christian belief ostensibly doesn’t? It seems to me that we are not trusting God’s word that He knows His own sheep and they know Him. Paul’s teachings on the body and temple of Christ (and in my opinion, the Book of Mormon as well) is directly contradicted by LDS temple work. It may have sincerity behind it. But it has no Christian nor Hebrew precedent (nor Biblical doctrinal support, IMO) and, as said, seems to place trust in our own works to “save our dead” (inefficiently I might add) rather than us trusting in God’s power to testify and turn to those who are His through the generations of humanity.

    Lastly concerning infants, mentally challenged or those who may not have the faculties to recognize the testimony of God in nature that the Bible says is given to all: Protestants believe in the mercy of God and see the answer to this in Romans 5 the mercy and justice of God in the blood of Christ given for all; if persons did not truly have the ability to recognize God, as Paul in the previous chapters addresses, that his compassion would extend to them.

    Again, even though Mormon temple practice claims to address this more “clearly”, Christians see this as providing an unnecessary work (and wrong to the extent that the LDS church requires payment of tithes in order for the living to receive such ‘blessings’) to alleviate the fears of mankind, where scripture testifies to us of the mercy, hope and salvation we have (if we will but trust)in the blood of Christ given to save all who will turn to Him.

  • Bruce Nielson

    Nick,

    You bring up a good point and I changed my article to reflect this. I did not mean to imply that a part of us is not eternal like God. I was simply suggesting that from our current temporal frame of reference, we do not really comprehend eternity because we have a finite beginning and ending as far as we remember.

    Ben,

    I do not object to either “ominpresent” nor “omni-influential” when describing God. I feel it depends on how you define those terms. That was really the point of my article, that it’s impossible to define those terms in a meaningful way because we have no experience with them. Personally, I believe God is indeed “ominpresent.” I think Kent at #3 does a good job of describing this.

    Consider Psalms 139:7-12. The two Evangelical scholars use this passage as a way of “disproving” the idea that God is “omni-influential” since David specifically say that God’s presence is everywhere, including in hell (i.e. Hades, the realm of the dead.) This verse does insist, at least in a sense, that God is omni-present. What it does NOT insist on is in what sense. Owens and Mosser are merely assuming that their definition of omnipresent is correct. (Consider also that Luke 1:19 contradicts their definition because it implies it’s possible to be in God’s presence in a special sense different than what David is saying.)

    My point being that your word “omni-influential” may be exactly the type of “presence” that David was refering to, thus you may be correct. Yet even you would have to admit that “omni-influential” and David’s idea of “presence” are one and the same. Thus you can’t reject the term “omnipresence” either.

    Anon,

    You bring up a good point that I wish I had put into my post. I am not suggesting that all Christians are more concerned with the first list to the exclusion of the second. I know of at least one notable exception: C.S. Lewis. I’ve studied his theology quite a bit and I’m convinced that he completely held to the idea that God is everything on the 2nd list exactly as we now understand those terms. Since C.S. Lewis is considered by many to be “orthodox” in his beliefs (not withstanding his heterodoxical views by Born Again Christian standards that included a belief in purgatory) my explanation above clearly does not apply to all “orthodox Christians.”

    That being said, I spent quite a bit of time trying to make sure I understood what most Christians I’ve interacted with believed on these subjects. The examples I use in the post are all real and accurate.

    Let me use some specifics to explain myself.

    You said “The concept of Hell can be seen as God giving us exactly what we desire, eternal separation from Him.” I pursued this notion with a group of people on the internet that identified themselves as being Christians. Many said exactly that. My counter questions, in an attempt to understand what they really meant by those words, was “suppose there is a 14-16 year old devote Muslim that dies. Will he go to hell? Or will he be saved without having accepted Christ.” The majority of people I emailed refused to answer such questions. One honest lady suggested that perhaps such a person would be given a vision of Christ at death and be allowed to accept Christ. But please note, reconciling this conundrum required invention of new doctrine. It is impossible to reconcile without non-bibilical and unorthodox doctrine.

    Likewise when I posed the question to this group, “what will happen to a person in hell that decides they want to accept Christ and repent?” I was assured that such a thing was impossible because such a person would never want to change. When I asked “why were they able to change prior to death but at death not able to change?” I got no answers back. The Christians I was emailing simply had no interest in pursuing that question.

    Well, except for that same honest lady. She responded that maybe God causes you to die once He knows you will never change. Again, the only way to reconcile is with non-biblical an unorthox doctrines.

    You said: “Nevertheless many Christians belive that the Bible _does_ affirm the mercy and glory of God for those “heathen” who we may think don’t know God” I’m glad you believe this. None of the Christians in this group did. Even that lady I mention still believed that a person had to accept Christ as Jesus (via a vision before death) or be damned. The rest didn’t even go that far.

    Having asked these questions many many times of Christians, I believe my view is accurate that many Christians — nearly all I’ve encountered — are not very concerned about reconciling God’s actions to our understanding of “love” (or “justice” or “mercy.”) I believe they generally just see it as a mystery and don’t worry about it much. In all my questioning about this I lost count how many times I had Isa 55:8 (“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord.”) quoted to me as their answer.

    I find that very strange and here is why: If you can take a seemingly contradictory act on God’s part (i.e. he doesn’t something that is not loving but you assume it’s in some sense loving that you don’t comprehend) and can deflect it by quoting Isa 55:8, then why in the world can’t that same Christians see that they should have no objection to Mormons beliefs? For example, believing God has a body and is still in some sense “ominpresent?” Why don’t I get to use Isa 55:8 as the same free pass they use it as?

    Logically speaking, once you’ve swallowed one contradiction, or at least refused to work out one seeming contradiction, you’ve basically denied yourself the right to object to anyone else’s beliefs on the grounds that they “aren’t logical” or even “contradictory.” After all, Isa 55:8 can really apply to anything on any subject, can’t it?

  • http://michelleglauser.blogspot.com Michelle Glauser

    In response to Nick’s suggestion, I think any of them could be in the second column . . . remember, that’s where we’re heading.

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  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_YWM4MSMH6IHNS74CJDD7GQ7GJQ Jeremy T

    I’ve been having problems with The Four O’s (Omnipresent, Omniscient, Omnipotent, Omnitempus)  lately since my return to the church after evangelical influence. Thanks for this food for thought.