Almighty God? Not by a Long Shot, Actually

Has he lost power since Bible days?

Devout folks who are even passingly familiar with the Bible know for sure that God acts boldly in human affairs. He wants to have his way, so he interferes and intervenes. This pattern was established right from the start; he used his stupendous power to create the heaven and the earth by decree, “Let there be light.” Eventually, among the humans he had created, he designated a “chosen people,” and ordered them about: “Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who curses you I will curse.’” (Genesis 12:1-3) This was a hands-on God.


Much later, after the Chosen People had escaped from Egypt, God guided them in the wilderness: “And the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead them along the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, that they might travel by day and by night; the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night did not depart from before the people.” (Exodus 13:21-22) 


God’s might was obvious. And his anger. When Uzzah accidently touched the super sacred Ark of the Covenant (2 Samuel 6), God struck him dead instantly; when the Israelites complained about their desert wanderings, he sent poisonous snakes to bite them (Numbers 21). 


Mark and Matthew report that the voice of God was heard from the sky, and God also spoke from water vapor (a cloud) when Jesus was transfigured. Perhaps most dramatically, God also spoke from a burning bush when he called upon Moses to rescue the Israelites. God has communicated through dreams, i.e. to Joseph and to the Wise Men. He also uses angels for some of the heavy lifting. According to Matthew, on Easter morning “…an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone, and sat upon it” (28:2). Acts 12 reports that Peter was chained in prison, but an “angel of the Lord” suddenly appeared and helped him escape. 


God is even able to transform and multiply substances—as illustrated by Jesus’ turning water into wine and feeding thousands of people with just a few pieces of bread and fish. 


God is so powerful he can even manipulate human thought, to the extend that he inspired various authors to write more than a thousand pages of Bible. And he is good at getting people to change their minds. Even though Moses heard God from that burning bush, he didn’t want the assignment. “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the sons of Israel out of Egypt?” (Exodus 3:11) Of course, God got his way.


Most famously for Christians is the conversion of Paul, who was a fierce persecutor of the early Jesus cult. But God got inside his head to affect a radical change: Paul had visions of the dead Jesus telling him “God’s-honest-truth” and he became a zealous missionary for Christ. 


Folks who have been brought up on these dramatic stories of God’s interventions are confident that God hears prayers for the cure of cancers, and believers in the Catholic brand are confident that the appearances of Mary, at so many places around the globe, are authentic.  


We are right to be suspicious, of course. We do have to wonder if God has proved equal to the task of managing the welfare of the world he created. Theologians work very hard at theodicy to explain the colossal human and animal suffering that God has tolerated for centuries. I have recently started a new series of posts here on the DC Blog, titled, “Where Was God When This Happened?” Part 1 is here; Part 2 is here. These feature extensive quotes of authors who have described, dramatically and eloquently, episodes of suffering that defy explanation if an almighty and good God is in charge. These episodes undermine the na├»ve Bible descriptions of a God who dives right into human affairs.  


The quote featured in Part I was from John Keegan’s The First World War. This is the opening sentence: 


“THE FIRST WORLD WAR was a tragic and unnecessary conflict. Unnecessary because the train of events that led to its outbreak might have been broken at any point during the five weeks of crisis that preceded the first clash of arms, had prudence or common goodwill found a voice…”


Is it really possible that God had no way to stimulate “prudence and common goodwill”—especially since the rulers of the original combatant nations claimed Christian credentials? This deity, who has used dreams, voices from the sky, burning bushes, and mind control to inspire scripture, surely could have knocked sense into a few important heads. But no, the madness continued.  


The Keegan quote includes this as well:


“The Second World War, five times more destructive of human life and incalculably more costly in material terms, was the direct outcome of the First. On 18 September 1922, Adolf Hitler, the demobilised front fighter, threw down a challenge to defeated Germany that he would realise seventeen years later: ‘It cannot be that two million Germans should have fallen in vain … No, we do not pardon, we demand—vengeance!’”


It is hard to imagine a more hate-filled individual than Adolf Hitler—and it’s hard to imagine that God didn’t have some way to take him out. On 24 July 1944 the assassination plot against Hitler failed. Couldn’t God have made sure it worked? But that plot was late in the game. Why not get rid of Hitler much earlier when he ranted about revenge in 1922, and savagely condemned the Jews? Many human observers were worried about the possible horrible outcomes, but God didn’t notice? This is a God, we’re told, who “so loves the world,” but that doesn’t make sense from the perspective of the carnage of the 20th century. He has displayed far too much pettiness: sending poisonous snakes to bite complainers, but sending a few poisonous snakes after Hitler would have been a good idea. 


In Part 2, I quoted from Nikolaus Wachsmann’s KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps:


“Dachau, April 29, 1945. It is early afternoon when U.S. troops, part of the Allied force sweeping across Germany to crush the last remains of the Third Reich, approach an abandoned train on a rail siding at the grounds of a sprawling SS complex near Munich. As the soldiers come closer, they make a dreadful discovery: the boxcars are filled with the corpses of well over two thousand men and women, and also some children. Gaunt, contorted limbs are entangled amid a mess of straw and rags, covered in filth, blood, and excrement. Several ashen-faced GIs turn away to cry or vomit. ‘It made us sick at our stomach and so mad we could do nothing but clinch our fists,’ an officer wrote the next day.” 


Yes, decent human beings react this way: crying and vomiting at the horrors they witnessed. Was God indifferent or helpless? Here above all is the scandal of divine negligence. An angel arrived to get Peter out of jail, so why couldn’t legions of angels have swarmed the concentration camps? Even millions of Christians sense that “this is not the way the world works,” because—frankly—God just isn’t there. 


The John Keenan quote in Part 1 closes with this sentence: “The First World War inaugurated the manufacture of mass death that the Second brought to a pitiless consummation.” This truth prompted Darrell Ray’s observation: “It took two world wars for the Europeans to realize that the prayers of millions of people were not answered. It doesn’t take that much intelligence to see that god isn’t working too well when 92 millions people died in two world wars.” (The God Virus: How Religion Infects Our Lives and Cultures


How much pure evil do the faithful have to witness before they realize that their theology is hopelessly defective?  Of course, the church doesn’t encourage skepticism about theology, but is geared up to take matters in exactly the opposite direction. It strives for awe and wonder, with the focus on worship to distract attention from God’s obvious faults, e.g., music, costumes, ritual, stained glass, art and architecture. “Let us glorify our awesome God.” 


Back to reality: Mass death brought to pitiless consummation. Was it God’s design that our brains are wired for aggression and territoriality? Maybe Christians should embrace evolution so that God can’t be blamed for that. What was God’s reaction when he saw that aggressive, territorial humans had invented guns? Wouldn’t that have been a good time to do an intervention?


A full year before the Sandy Hook School massacre (December 2012, 20 children and 6 adults murdered), Richard Carrier wrote this:


“Think about it. A man approaches a school with a loaded assault rifle, intent on mass murder. A loving person speaks to him, attempts to help him resolve his problems or to persuade him to stop, and failing that, punches him right in the kisser, and takes away his gun. And a loving person with godlike powers could simply turn his bullets into popcorn as they left the gun, or heal with a touch whatever insanity or madness (or by teaching him cure whatever ignorance) led the man to contemplate the crime. But God does nothing.” (p. 21, Why I Am Not a Christian: Four Conclusive Reasons to Reject the Faith)


Among many other things, we can assume that God had the power to give the Sandy Hook killer a flat tire on his way to the school, running his car off the road into a tree. But there’s also the option that Carrier suggested: turn the bullets into popcorn. After all, transmutation is one of God’s skills (e.g., water into wine). 


When God discovered that guns had been invented—and since he reads human minds—every time a gun was fired with hostile or murderous intent, God could have turned the bullets into popcorn, feathers, or strawberries: “I’m not going to let them kill each other by the millions!” Mass death brought to pitiless consummation could have been prevented. This may sound totally frivolous, but we’re entitled to speculate about what an All-powerful God could have done. It’s such a pity that he just shrugged and watched—or so it seems, if he exists


And oh, by the way, about God curing cancers and sending Mary on assignments around the world. If God indeed can do invasive miracles in the human body—such as curing cancer—why not simply cure all cancers? Just get rid of the disease. And arrange for Mary to show up any time a priest is about to rape a child, and administer a few swift kicks. Yes, we’d be impressed with these demonstrations of God’s almighty power. 


In both Parts 1 and 2, I quoted Tim Sledge:


“Decent parents protect their kids from danger. If your toddler grabs the liquid Drano container, you don’t watch in silence. But that is exactly what God the Heavenly Father has done through the ages. He just watches, invisible and silent.” (Four Disturbing Questions, with One Simple Answer: Breaking the Spell of Christian Belief, pp. 45-46)


Maybe God has been tied up for centuries with weighty affairs in other galaxies. How long do we have to wait for him to show his almighty powers on Earth? 



David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was published by Tellectual Press in 2016. It was reissued in 2018 with a new Foreword by John Loftus.


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