If you search the web, you’ll find an earlier draft of this that I wrote nearly three years ago on another blog What follows is written from the viewpoint of a (former) mainstream Christian, although as far as I know, most if not all of it applies to other monotheistic religions as well.
The following axioms are generally assumed about the gods of monotheistic religions:
- God is omnifacient, meaning that he created everything that exists.
- God is omnipotent, having complete control over what happens within his creation.
- God is good. There is some ambiguity here about what “good” means, although it usually corresponds to a benevolent attitude toward his creatures (specifically mankind, and possibly including animals and plant life).
- God has expectations of the behavior of his creatures in which they are expected to acquiesce, and at some point their acquiescence will be evaluated, that evaluation having variously specified consequences.
Anyone who’s thought about the existence of such a god for very long at all arrives at what we call “the problem of evil” (or “theodicy”): The contention (disguised as incontestible fact) that the omnipotent and omnibenevolent creator has created some things that aren’t so good, at least according to popular conceptions of goodness.
Usually, at this point, a Christian will invoke this argument: God is good and wants good things, but permits his creatures (for whatever reason) to employ “free will” to make bad choices.
To most humans, trapped in Earth time and not too current with twentieth century physics, this seems like a fine explanation. From the creator’s perspective, though, it would have some problems.
Loosely speaking, Einstein’s special theory of relativity says that, rather than living in a three-dimensional universe progressing ever forward in time, we actually live in a four-dimensional spacetime in which the order in which things happen depends on one’s speed and the direction in which one is moving. As one approaches the speed of light, time passes more and more slowly; for photons, time stands still.
At this point, a hundred years on, Einstein’s theory has been extensively checked against experiment. Anyone who would say today that special relativity is a controversial theory is being either deliberately ignorant or deliberately perverse.
So, returning to the point of view of our omnipotent creator: how do I create a being with free will? Well, given that this being lives its entire life within the four-dimensional spacetime I just willed into existence, it’s silly to talk about free will. If there’s an omnipotent creator, whatever I do is an act of that creator, whether I realize it or not. Whatever anyone does is an act of the creator.
Going back to the problem of evil: what about the bad people who do evil things, and the awful things they do? Surely God can’t be involved with them!
This is the problem with evil. If there were things that God didn’t want to happen, they wouldn’t happen. End of story.
Even the concept of evil, as something that happens contrary to the “will of God”, is problematic.
This is the conclusion that monotheists cannot tolerate. There cannot be any such thing as an omnipotent creator god. He’s a contradiction in terms, as long as we maintain a distinction between good and evil.
If there is an omnipotent creator god, he must be morally neutral (or there must be something defective in our concepts of good and evil).
If there is an omnipotent creator god, then you are acting as an agent of that god, wherever you go and whatever you do. Anyone you disagree with, anyone you love, anyone you hate, and anyone against whom you practice violence is also acting as an agent of that god, just as you are.
On the other hand, if there’s a god of love, that loves people who worship and serve him and has a paradise waiting for them, hates evildoers and intends to condemn them to universal punishment, and wants his worshipers to evangelize others, then that god is not an omnipotent creator, but rather a creature himself. This is also a contradiction in terms.
Why do people still go around believing in such gods, then, and why are religions so confusing? It’s because religion is more about political power than anything else.
In the case of Christianity, most of what people believe today was decreed by a couple hundred bishops at the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, which was called by the emperor Constantine specifically for the purpose of getting everyone to agree on a majority position, so that they could get about the important business of persecuting heretics.