This week, I will answer a couple of reader questions in the course of a single response.
Q: How can God be considered “almighty” when he needs to rest on the seventh day of creation, he needs a rib in order to create a woman, he needs to save two of each animal on a wooden boat rather than re-create the animals from scratch. For somebody who supposedly created the entire universe, he sure has many limitations.
— A, via E-mail from Farmingdale
Q: When we get to heaven, do we still have free will? Because, if we do, what will keep us from still sinning? If we no longer sin in heaven, why didn’t God just make us to not sin in the first place? I am 67 and have had this question for more than 40 years. Afraid to ask it aloud for fear of causing another to stumble, I have asked it privately of just a few scholarly Christians. So far I haven’t gotten an answer that has given me peace.
— G, via Email from Louisiana
A: God is omnipotent, but there are some things that even God cannot do because they are contradictions in terms. God cannot make a married bachelor or a square circle, but not being able to do this is not a limit on God’s almighty-ness. Then there are some things that God could do but chooses not to do because doing them destroys our unique intellectual gifts and distinctive humanity. God could eliminate free will and make us incapable of ever sinning, but that would deprive us of the ability to grow and learn from failure. This is a kind of self-limitation of God. God could have made us good-deed-doing-robots but instead God decided to let us grow into our freedom and into our best selves.
Parents do the same thing. We do not make our children do what we tell them to do after they have grown up a bit. We choose to limit our parental power in order to make room for them to grow up. God has made room in the world for us to grow up, and that is why we are capable of both wrecking and redeeming our world and our lives. Sin is the price of freedom and freedom is worth the price.
The stories of early Genesis were never intended to be read as historical events. They are moral fables. They explain what it means spiritually to have a world that is created by a holy, good and just God. They explain in mythopoeic terms how man and woman came to be as beings made in the image of God. The creation account describes the Sabbath as a day of rest not because God needed to rest, but because God wanted to teach us not to make work our constant taskmaster. I believe that read as moral fables, all the stories of Genesis are true in that sense and are revealed by God in that way. I know that some truly faithful folk want these 4,000-year-old stories to be more than that. They, like Aquinas, quote on their behalf, Luke 1:37: “No word shall be impossible with God.”
I respect their desire to make the flood narrative the actual historical account of a real boat filled with real pairs of animals floating on a real sea that covered all the land. However, my path up the mountain to God is a path that does not contradict reason or morality. I believe that a story can be true and inspiring while not being real. It is its meaning that inspires me not its historical accuracy.
Whenever I am asked about God’s attributes I wonder what is really behind the questions. Behind the question about the stories of Genesis I believe is the question about whether God performs miracles. An almighty God is just a theological postulate, but a God who can heal my mother or me — a God who can intervene not just in history, but also in my own life — well, that God matters to people in a much more personal way. I believe in a God who does miracles, but I also believe in a God who wants us not to rely on miracles for our hopefulness.
And behind the question of why God does not keep us from sinning is the problem of how evil can exist in a world with an almighty and good God. I know the agony of suffering and I know the neediness of believers to have God put an end to the cruelty of our world, but I accept evil as the price we must pay for being moral actors in this world. God is with us in our struggle against evil, and that to me is far more realistic and ennobling and comforting than a God who simply wipes away evil while we passively watch.