Growing up Amish I was taught that God was omnipotent (all-powerful). I was taught that God had the power to make anything happen and that he did – everything from making a leaf fall from a tree to deciding that it was time for someone to die. I grew up believing that God did not start the universe and then sit back as it unfolded, but rather, that he fully controlled every event.
But as I became an older child, things didn’t make quite as much sense anymore. If God made everything happen then why did I sometimes do bad things? I knew that God didn’t want me to do bad things but still I believed that he controlled it. Also, when somebody died, everyone in the community would say “Well, it was his time to go.” Everyone believed that God had chosen that day as the day for that person to die. Then we heard about a suicide in some other community. Everyone was so sad. Everyone knew that the person would go to hell – suicide was the worst possible thing to do because it was defying God’s will of when you must die, and it leaves no time to repent afterwards.
Wait a minute!
This might have been the very first time that I recognized a logical contradiction. On the one hand, God was omnipotent but on the other hand God didn’t seem able to control the desires of man.
So I asked my Dad about it and I talked to my Mom about it. Their consensus was that God is omnipotent except when it comes to the free will of man. Of course they didn’t use the term “free will”. Either they had never heard about it or they wanted to simplify things for me.
After a lot of thinking, this made sense to me. After all, God made us in his image. It made perfect sense that he “made” us but that he couldn’t fully control us. We were left to decide some things for ourselves and to pay the consequences for any bad choices that we made.
It didn’t take long for the nagging thoughts to return. If God was omnipotent why did he choose to give us free will when he made us? Wouldn’t it be more fair if he made us like the animals – with no free will? Why did he choose to give us a characteristic that would end up causing so much pain when he could just as well have done everything but give us free will?
This time when I asked for help with my questions, I couldn’t find anyone to help. For my parents, and even for the Amish preacher I asked, my questions were apparently too deep for them.
So of course they defaulted to an explanation that goes something like this; “I don’t know the answer to that but you know, the Bible tells us that God’s ways are so mysterious. Maybe we’re not meant to understand all these things.”
That wasn’t good enough for me. If God didn’t want me to understand things, he wouldn’t have given me a questioning mind.
So of course, I developed elaborate rationalizations. I had always believed that the purpose of life was to get to heaven. Upon wondering why God even made a heaven and why he wants humans in it, I decided that he probably got very lonely and just wants some company. At this point I decided that God had free will and that he wanted to socialize with other minds that have free will and by giving us free will, he had to relinquish some of his omnipotence. Therefore, we have choices and we have pain and suffering.
Sometimes I suspected that we were an experiment orchestrated by God. I imagined him up there in heaven taking notes as he watched his experiment unfold. I even went as far as imagining that it would be like me looking curiously down upon an anthill and watching the ignorant ants go about their lives. Whenever I couldn’t understand some facet of God I would imagine once again the ants on that anthill. I imagined that God’s intellectual superiority was like the difference in intelligence between humans and ants. Of course the ants had no hope of understanding even the smallest fact about us humans. In much the same way it made sense that we humans don’t have a hope of fully understanding the smallest fact about God.
In retrospect, I still suffer a little from a variation of the question, “Is there free will or is God omnipotent?” This variation is, “Is there free will or is there determinism?” But that’s a question to tackle on some other day.