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Mailbag: What Can God Do?

Editor’s Note: Thanks to Dr. Michael Jones for answering this mailbag question. If you have a question that you would like answered, contact us on Facebook or at moralapologetics@gmail.com. 


 

Hello! I’m desperately searching for an answer to a question that my Mormon friend posed to me earlier this week. He asked me if God has freedom given that He cannot choose evil. I replied by telling him that God could choose any number of good things, not just evil. The inability to choose A, B, & C doesn’t mean God can’t choose D, E, and F, but he stopped me there. “God can’t just choose all that is good, He must choose the most perfect choice since He is perfectly good Himself. Thus, God can only do one thing. He does not have free will.” I really have no idea how to answer this, do you? If not, could you direct me towards someone who would? Thanks!

Patrick


Greetings. This is an interesting question. It’s also a familiar one, to me: one or another of my students raises this question almost every year. Perhaps it comes up so regularly because there’s some truth behind it. And that’s actually a good thing: if your goal is to win the confidence of your friend (I get the impression that it is) then I think it would be helpful for you to begin by acknowledging those points about which you agree.

For example, you’d probably grant that there are some things that God cannot choose to do, wouldn’t you? We’re often tempted to think that if God is omnipotent (all powerful) then he can do anything that we can imagine – and perhaps even things that are beyond our imagination. But that’s neither biblical nor very logical. The Bible indicates several things that God cannot do. For example, he cannot lie (Titus 1:2) and he cannot be tempted (James 1:13). God can’t do these things because they go against his own nature. Similarly he can’t cease being God, he can’t become finite in his knowledge, power, or goodness, and he cannot cease to exist, any more than you or I could do things that go against our nature, like sprout wings and fly or be in all places at once.

Likewise there are things that God cannot do because they are truly impossible, and therefore no one could do them. It’s impossible to make a square triangle, to make two plus two equal five, and things like that. Not being able to do these things is not a shortcoming on God’s part: no god, no matter how powerful, could do these things, for they are truly impossible.

There are choices that God cannot make because making them would go against his nature, and there are choices that God cannot make because they involve something that is simply impossible. These closely parallel what was said above. This is not a shortcoming on God’s part: it’s just the nature of things. Your friend may simply be pointing this out, and if that’s all he’s trying to say, then you may want to thank him and be done with it.

From what you wrote, however, it seems like your friend is saying that God isn’t free at all. I would disagree with that. Your friend seems to be making the argument that God’s perfect knowledge of all the options and their results combines with his perfect goodness to prevent him from choosing anything but one option in every situation. There’s a lot that could be discussed here, including Molinism, Open Theism, metaphysical views of time, history, God’s relationship to time, etc. Since I can’t address all of these, I’ll focus on just one: the presupposition that in any given situation there is always one option that is superior to all of the others.

It may be true that in some or perhaps in many situations there is one option that is decisively better than all of the others. I think that your friend is right that in those situations God’s nature constrains him to choose that option that is best. (I must add, though, that here we’re talking as if God experiences time and choosing just like we mortals do, which may be too anthropomorphic. We’ll leave that issue aside, though.) But that should not be viewed as a shortcoming, any more than God’s inability to sin, lie, or create square circles is a shortcoming (which it’s not, in my opinion). Furthermore, some theologians believe that there’s a sense in which this is still a form of free choice on God’s part, for in such a situation God’s choice is not constrained by anything outside of himself. God chooses in harmony with what God is and what he knows about reality. He can’t choose otherwise because doing so would contradict his nature and the nature of reality. Perhaps that’s not a problem at all, though. The alternative would seem to be to say that God can make choices that are not consistent with who he is, as an omniscient and omnibenevolent being. I’m not sure that you should want to affirm that.

All of that is predicated on the assumption that in any given situation there is always a single best option. However, that’s a pretty big assumption. In fact, there may be many situations wherein there are many very good options none of which is clearly better than the others. The other day my wife asked me what I wanted for breakfast and then proceeded to list a number of very tasty options. Each had its advantages, to be sure, but to me any of them would have been great. Something similar may happen to God quite often: he may know that choosing option A will have 10 beneficial consequences and 3 detrimental ones, that B would have 12 benefits but one hugely detrimental consequence, that option C would have 9 beneficial results but also 9 fairly minor negative results, etc. Knowing exactly how each option balances good and bad, he would know if and when there are options that, all things considered, are equally preferable. In those situations there is no one best option. That being the case, it makes sense that God would be free to choose between those options, don’t you think?

It’s great to think deeply about the nature of God. It can be inspiring! But let’s keep in mind that there are many ways in which the nature of the infinite, perfect God transcends finite human understanding. We should marvel at his greatness but not be discouraged if he’s hard for us to wrap our minds around.

May God bless you as you seek to follow him,

MSJ

Image: “Mail” by Bogdan Suditu. CC License. 

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