Wrongly defining God by his almightiness.

Recently a friend was trying to emphasize to me how mysterious God is:

SHE. “God is almighty, right? So can he create a rock so heavy, he can’t lift it?”
ME. “Yes of course he could create such a rock.”
SHE. [figuring she got me] “But if he can’t lift it, then is he really almighty? Is he really God?”
ME. “Well first of all, God isn’t defined by his almightiness. But second of all, it’s a poor sort of almightiness that can’t create paradoxes.”

Yeah, she didn’t realize this wasn’t my first go-around with this particular question. I grew up inflicting it on my Sunday school teachers, just to see whether I liked any of their answers. (Seldom did I.) Theology professors still use it to mess with the minds of their students. I came up with my own answer back in seminary, just to mess with the minds of my theology professors.

But like my professors, she wanted to go back to my first comment, and object to it a little: The idea God isn’t defined by his almightiness.

Yep, the belief he is defined by it, is one of those things people think is a given. ’Cause it’s what we were taught as children. Even pagan kids, when they’re first taught what a god is, are taught it’s an almighty being, or at least an extremely powerful one. And Christians are taught God is by definition Almighty. The Creator. The Prime Mover. The only one who can do absolutely anything. Omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent. It’s what makes him God, innit? If he’s not almighty, he can’t really be God, right?

Wrong. That’s human thinking. That’s how we define gods. It’s not how God defines himself.

You wanna know how God defines himself, you look at Jesus. ’Cause Jesus is God. Yet when he was walking around on the earth during his first coming, Jesus actually wasn’t almighty. He gave that up. Deliberately. On purpose.

Philippians 2.6-11 KWL
6 Existing in God’s form, he figured being the same as God wasn’t something to clutch,
7 but poured himself into a slave’s form: He took on a human likeness.
8 He was born; he was found human in every way.
Being obedient, he humbled himself to death: Death by crucifixion.
9 So God exalted him. He gave him the name over every name.
10 In the name of Jesus, every knee may bend—heavenly, earthly, and underworldly—
11 every tongue confess Christ Jesus is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

If Jesus is God, but for a time wasn’t almighty, stands to reason “almightiness” isn’t essential to divinity.

Do not get me wrong:

  • I didn’t say God isn’t almighty. ’Cause he is.
  • I didn’t say almightiness isn’t one of God’s attributes. ’Cause it is. (Plus it’s kinda heresy to say the Father’s not almighty.)
  • I only said it’s not essential to who he is.

Essence is what something deep down at its core is. You can’t remove it without transforming the thing into something entirely different. Take the axehead off an axe, and it’s not an axe anymore; it’s just a handle. Attach the axehead to any other stick and now that’s an axe. The axehead is the essence of an axe. You can think of plenty of similar examples.

Now, take the battery out of a phone and is it still a phone? Sure. It just won’t do anything; you gotta replace the battery or plug it in. Power isn’t intrinsic to a phone.

Same with Jesus. God could, and totally did, drop the almightiness yet remained God. In order to do any miracles, he had to tap the Holy Spirit, same as anybody else. Ac 10.38 But because he didn’t stop being God without the power, clearly power and almightiness doesn’t make him God. Something else does.

Yeah, I know what I think the “something else” is. Likely you do too. But for everybody else they’re gonna have to live in suspense, ’cause it’s more fun to end articles with the answer. First I’m gonna spend a little more time proving my point.

Jesus: The Almighty incognito, or God depowered?

We all know plenty of Christians who insist Jesus totally was almighty when he walked the earth. Their explanation is Jesus was secretly hiding his almightiness. Only pretending he was fully human.

“God incognito,” is the way one theology professor described it to me. In order to interact with humans, and not have ’em recoil in terror at his pure holiness, Jesus had to look and act as human as possible. So while he could do anything, Mk 7.37 knew everything, Jn 16.30 and somehow was still everywhere at once, Jn 1.48 it appeared like he wasn’t. And was okay with people coming to that false conclusion, lest he freak ’em out.

But every so often, people got a glimpse beneath Jesus’s “human suit,” and realized the Almighty was in their midst. For proof these Christians like to point to Jesus’s transfiguration. There, he dropped the “human suit” for a few minutes and stood, exposed as the Almighty, before his discombobulated students.

Mark 9.1-10 KWL
1 Jesus told them, “Amen, I swear to you all:
Some of you standing here won’t taste death until you see God’s kingdom come in power.”
2 After six days, Jesus took Simon Peter, James, and James’s brother John, up a high hill by themselves
There before them, Jesus was transformed.
3 His robes became as bright as lightning; an earthly tailor couldn’t make them that white.
4 Elijah and Moses appeared to them, and they were speaking with Jesus.
5 In response, Peter told Jesus, “Rabbi, it’s good we’re here!
We can make three tents—one for you, one for Moses, one for Elijah.”
6 (He didn’t know how to respond. The students were terrified.)
7 A cloud appeared, shading them, and a voice came from the cloud:
“This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him.”
8 And suddenly, looking round, there was no longer anything to see but Jesus, alone with them.
9 On the way down the hill with them, Jesus ordered them,
“Never tell anyone what you saw—until what time the Son of Man rises from the dead.”
10 They took hold of this message—
but by themselves, they debated what “rises from the dead” meant.

These Christians figure Jesus only took the form of a slave, Pp 2.7 much like cosplayer can take the form of Batman, but be wholly unable and unprepared to fight crime. Jesus “took on a human likeness,” but really, secretly, remained almighty.

Trouble is, this backs these Christians into one of the more common heresies about Christ: That he’s not really human. (Specifically, docetism.) That even though God deliberately created us humans to be limited in might, knowledge, and spacetime, Jesus only appeared to share our limitations, but he didn’t really. He still had all his superpowers. Therefore he wasn’t entirely human.

The other major problem is the hypocrisy inherent in such behavior. Remember hypocrisy?—how Jesus regularly objected, in verse after verse, to the practice of pretending to be what we’re not? It’s the one thing which irritated Jesus more than anything: Humans who feign righteousness we don’t have—and humility we don’t have. Well, pretending to be as limited as every other human, when secretly you have the power to split atoms with a word: It’d make Jesus a massive hypocrite. It’d undermine every rebuke he made about our hypocrisy.

I realize plenty of Christians are quite happy to believe in a God who’s inconsistent and unethical like this. Because they’ve built their entire worldview on the idea God is power. They don’t want God to surrender power.

Yet in order for him to be as sovereign and powerful as they imagine… he kinda has to be immoral. And that’s a grave error. It’s prioritizing power over character. You know, as humans do. Especially more power-hungry humans.

Humans covet power. The very idea Jesus might voluntarily, willingly surrender power so he could come to earth and interact with people… is way too much for some people to wrap our minds around. For we’d never do any such thing. And why entirely give up your power when you could just practice a little self-control and never use it? You know, like the marksman who owns several rifles, but lets gang members pick off his children one by one because he’d never use the rifles for anything but hunting. Assuming such a man exists.

Nope; it’s immoral and inconsistent for Jesus to pretend to be anything he’s not, or permit people to believe he’s something he’s really not. In the gospels, particularly John, he regularly got in trouble for stating who he really is. He didn’t hide who he was—and he didn’t pretend to surrender power, or appear to surrender power: He straight-up did.

What about the transfiguration? Christians misinterpret it ’cause they don’t know their bibles. When Moses entered the LORD’s presence he came away glowing like a space alien. Ex 34.29-30 When Jesus was likewise surrounded by his Father’s presence, he started glowing too. As humans do. As any of us could, if we had a similar sort of God-experience.

An open secret.

Jesus pretends nothing, and deceives no one. He is as the authors of the New Testament described him. He’s not merely the LORD appearing as a human, like when he appeared to Abraham. Ge 18.1-16 He’s really human. Went to all the trouble of getting born, having parents, growing up, dealing with siblings, and even getting corrected when his parents didn’t understand why he acted like he did. Lk 2.48-50

His behavior indicates he wasn’t even trying to hide his divinity. He’d blow his own cover by saying stuff only God might say. He’d forgive sins, Mk 2.5-12 declare “Before Abraham existed I AMJn 8.58-49 or “The Father and I are one,” Jn 10.30-33 —and nearly get himself stoned to death for it, too.

The only things Jesus kept a lid on, was how he’s Messiah, how he could cure disease, or the details of his kingdom which he concealed in parables. Mainly this was ’cause he knew these facts would draw unwanted attention or harassment. But his divinity? Not incognito. Obvious to anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear.

But not so obvious to people who covet power. Which is why people of the first century couldn’t identify Jesus for who he really is. Pharisees expected Messiah to come in great power and conquer their foes. That’s why, when he showed up as an ordinary man, they rejected him entirely. That’s not at all the sort of God they wanted.

It’s why people of the present day struggle to interpret Jesus properly as well. We can’t use this sort of God.

In so doing, we don’t identify our own lusts for power, and lack of submission. We can’t fathom the willing surrender of power. Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus returning to his farm instead of staying dictator of Rome? George Washington stepping down after only two terms as president? Both men blew the minds of their contemporaries: Who does that? They surely wouldn’t. Nor, they imagine, would their Jesus.

So the fact Jesus dropped his “omnis”—

  • NOT OMNIPOTENT: He could only do miracles through the Spirit, same as us.
  • NOT OMNISCIENT: He only knew what he saw the Father do, Jn 5.19 and didn’t know what the Father didn’t show him, like the time of his second coming. Mk 13.32
  • NOT OMNIPRESENT: Limited to one place and time on earth. Had to walk everywhere!
  • Still OMNIBENEVOLENT though. Mk 7.37

—meant plenty of people wouldn’t look beyond the power and recognize God. Also means plenty of people don’t really worship God: They worship the power.

I should point out it’s debatable whether Jesus has taken back any power once he ascended to the Father. Again, most Christians simply assume he has. He’s seated at the right hand of power; Mk 14.62 doesn’t that mean he’s got that power? But when Jesus became human, he didn’t put on a human suit temporarily. He became human permanently. He didn’t go back to being nonhuman after he went to heaven. When he returns he intends to live on earth, as human, with his people forever. Rv 21.3 Arguably he still has to tap the Spirit’s power to get stuff done.

Since Jesus was depowered, yet still did mighty things, it demonstrates we can also do mighty things when we work with the Spirit like Jesus did. He told us we can even do greater things than he did. Jn 14.12 Imagining Jesus is a special case, or exception, leads Christians to shirk our responsibilities on the grounds, “I can’t”—and limits how far the Spirit can get us to grow. And limits how far we can spread his kingdom.

Defining people by what they do.

Most of the problem comes from the faulty premise—that when a being does [activity], it makes ’em God. It’s like claiming, “She draws pictures, so she’s an artist.” Well, sometimes she is. But sometimes she’s a chimpanzee with a paintbrush and canvas, amusing her trainers but not really trying to make art. A robot can likewise be programmed to draw pictures, but the art comes more from the programmer’s clever algorithms.

My point is our character is defined by what we do and why. But our attributes only describe our potential. God can be almighty—if he so chooses. If he chooses not to be, he doesn’t stop being God. His godhood is not defined by his attributes. We describe him with these things. Not define him.

So when we call him almighty (or use the Latin-derived word omnipotent), we mean God can do anything. Not that he does do anything; nor, as determinists imagine, that he does everything. God has a free will, and does as he wishes. And when he chooses to act, nothing can stop him. What we find impossible, God finds inconsequential. He has infinite, undrainable, unstoppable, unimaginable power.

Dýnamis power, as some Christians describe it. They’re borrowing the Greek word δύναμις/dýnamis, which simply means “power.” Sometimes preachers who know no Greek mix it up with dynamite—which is entirely wrong; it’s more like a dynamo, which is inexhaustible instead of a flash-bang. But I digress; I wrote on this elsewhere.

God’s attributes are of course limited by his character. There are certain things he won’t do. Like be evil. Like tempt others with evil. Jm 1.13 Like lie. He 6.18, Tt 1.2 Like act contrary to his own nature. 2Ti 2.13

You remember the “logical impossibility” which came up at the beginning of this article: God creating a rock he can’t lift. If he defeats his own might, is that an act of power, or an act of weakness? If a chessmaster plays himself, who wins and who loses? The answer to both is the same: It’s not a real contest. It’s an exercise, and not really a necessary one. Chessmasters don’t get better by playing against themselves, and there’s no purpose in God creating impossible-to-lift rocks either. I mean, it may amuse skeptics and theologians, but big deal.

God can do whatever he wants. Emphasis on what he wants. If he doesn’t wanna, he’s never gonna. Like sin. Like perform illogical, brain-bending stunts. God is unlimited when it comes to what he wants to do—and self-limited when it comes to everything else.

But almightiness isn’t God’s favorite attribute. Not one he revels in, though he did shut up Job by pointing out, “Can you do what I can?” Jb 40.9-14 It’s a useful ability, but again, when he became human he surrendered it. It’s an attribute, but he doesn’t consider it a defining one. We do, and we’re wrong to.

So which attribute is an essential one to God? Love.

Exodus 34.6-7 KWL
6 The LORD passed by Moses’s face and said, “The LORD.
The LORD, the compassionate, gracious God.
Slow to anger. Abundant in love and truth.
7 Always loving to the masses who follow me.
Forgiving depravity, carelessness, and sin.
But I never declare rebels innocent.
I hold children responsible for their parents’ depravity—
and the children, and the great-grandchildren.”

God is love. 1Jn 4.8 Take away love and he’s not God.

I know; we humans never even thought of love as his essence, did we? After all, every pagan mythology has an evil god or two in it. But it stands to reason the pagans were defining divinity wrong. You gotta go to God for our definitions of what godhood entails, and for God, who he is at his core is love. Not might. As demonstrated by the fact he loves us enough to give up the might, yet retain the love.

Jesus shows us what God’s like when he’s not almighty. Seems he’s way less into wrath than we ever imagined.