Doctrine Ch.16 - Omnipotence

How does God achieve his plans? Does he control us like a puppet master, manipulate us like a chess player, or fight for us like a warrior?

How many times have you heard “If God is all-powerful and good, then why is there so much suffering?” The question is older than Job, who ponders this in the Bible. Like most of us, Job makes the mistake of concentrating on the nature of suffering rather than the power of God. The answer lies in God’s sovereignty and omnipotence, because the question is: how does God carry out his purpose?

       After God created a perfect universe, sin entered and spoiled it, but God has said that he will reign with justice and fill the earth with peace and the full glory of his presence (Isa 11:1-9). Whatever God wants to happen will happen, because the Bible declares that he is all-powerful (1 Chr 29:11-12; Job 42:2; Matt 19:26; Eph 1:19-21).1 All Christians believe that nothing can prevent God from carrying from out his plan—but what is his method for attaining this goal?

       Some theologians regard God like a puppet master who moves every person and every atom exactly as he wishes. Others liken him to a chess player who manipulates some pieces in order to encourage or constrain other pieces to move into the positions he has planned for them. Still others think that God is like a great warrior who fights negative forces to enable people to move in the direction he wants. All three strategies will result in God achieving his plan, and of course he can use any strategy that he wishes. But which is the most biblically accurate image of how he exercises his control?

5-minute summary

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God at the exodus

The Bible includes texts that seem to support all three, but for a correct understanding it is important that we consider these in context. The best way to understand which one applies is to look for texts that could be interpreted in any of these three ways and then see which interpretation best fits the context. For example, we could interpret the story of the exodus as God working like a puppet master because he hardened Pharaoh’s heart and then punished him for it. On the other hand, we could also interpret the events as God working like a chess player, controlling coincidences so that Moses’ basket floated past Pharaoh’s daughter just when she was bathing. Or we could say that God acted like a warrior, conquering the Egyptians. This is how Miriam and Moses praised him: “The LORD is a warrior; the LORD is his name. Pharaoh’s chariots and his army he has hurled into the sea” (Exod 15:3-4). I don’t think Moses would regard the other two images as wrong, because it seems that God has no single method. He strategizes like a chess player, he controls like a puppet master, and he fights for us.

       Actually, Pharaoh is not a very good example of a puppet because sometimes he hardened his own heart and sometimes God hardened it (e.g., Exod 9:34; 10:1). These two descriptions suggest that Pharaoh hardened his own resolve and God helped him stick with his decision. In this case, Pharaoh isn’t like puppet because a puppet has no resolve. Instead, God is portrayed like a chess player who encourages his opponent to carry out an ill-conceived strategy! This doesn’t mean that the view of a totally controlling God is wrong, but it isn’t what the text portrays at this point.

       The image of God as a warrior is very common in the Old Testament. He fights for his people against spiritual enemies and helps them fight physical enemies. We see this in Israel’s political history, in the prophetic visions, and even in poetic praise. The psalmist says that God is a fortress and defense when we are attacked, a rescuer and redeemer when we are captured, and the victor at the end of every battle (e.g., Pss 46; 59; 62).

       If God fights for and rescues his people, this implies that previously they have been suffering. This suffering included violent attacks, defeat, capture, illnesses, betrayal by friends, famines, and sudden poverty. The psalmists and prophets constantly praise God for delivering his people from such suffering. In other words, the Bible does not portray God as preventing suffering, but instead it portrays God helping his people when disasters have occurred. Sometimes he rescues them from that disaster, while at other times he helps them cope with the suffering till it ends.

The complexity of God’s strategy

These three different viewpoints of how God acts imply different reasons why he allows his people to suffer. If he is a puppet master, we have to conclude that every disaster is intentional and that he wishes to impose injury, illness, and disease on his people for some reason. This might be for a variety of reasons: perhaps he wants them to be grateful when he “rescues” them, or perhaps he wants them to depend on him, so he only rescues them when they pray.

       If, however, he is a chess player, he could use disasters to move people into situations he wants them to be in for a variety of reasons. We might conclude that he isn’t very expert at this, because he lets himself lose so many pieces—people can be harmed in the process! However, any chess player knows that the game progresses by losing pieces. In the New Testament, Paul recognized that God does sometimes acts like a chess player—such as when God closed some doors and opened others in order to direct him to Macedonia (Acts 16:6-10). And sometimes Paul regarded God like a puppet master—for example, God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart (in Rom 9:17-18); though we must remember that Paul knew (just as we do) that Pharaoh also hardened his own heart.

       But most often, Paul regarded God as a warrior and victor—as someone who redeems and rescues his people from principalities and powers (see Rom 8:37-39). In fact, Paul boasted about the suffering he went through: shipwrecks, beatings, and even stoning (2 Cor 11:23-30). In his Prison Epistles, he didn’t wonder why he was suffering; instead he rejoiced in being able to suffer for Jesus! He regarded suffering as negligible in the light of the final victory (2 Cor 4:7). God’s sovereignty in the Bible is magnified when, like Paul, his people continue to follow and trust him even though they are going through hardship.

       God’s strategy is complex and mostly hidden—we certainly cannot see it in full yet—but the Bible gives us some valuable glimpses into what he is doing, and we can see his hand everywhere. From illnesses to armed opponents, we can rely on God to give us strength to help us cope or to rescue us in the timing of his planning. Meanwhile we wait: we wait for the final victory and for the end of all suffering. Then we will be able to peep behind the curtain and see how he actually did achieve his plans.

1^ The Greek word meaning “all-powerful” (pantodynamos) does not actually occur in the Bible, though there are ten occurrences of “all-authority” (pantokratos—e.g., Rev.4:8)., which is usually translated “almighty.”

This was previously published in a similar form in Christianity magazine

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