Suppose that you were going to create a universe. Okay, I know. It’s way above your pay grade, but humor me. What kind of universe would you create? Imagine that option one is to create the kind of universe where you are in absolute control over everything that happens. You basically write the script for this universe. If there are creatures in it who will act and speak, you determine how they will act and what they will say. Being in total charge means that you won’t be surprised by anything that happens. It’s what you planned. It also means that you have complete responsibility for everything that happens.
Is there another option? What about this? You give beings in the universe you create powers of various kinds, including powers that enable some beings to perform actions that affect what happens. Because these creatures have been given real powers, you are not in total control. Some of what occurs is the doing of the creatures you have made. The scenario I am describing is less like a play where you have written all the lines and more like one where you set things up and then give the actors the ability to improvise. In some ways this kind of universe might be more interesting than the kind where everything is mapped out. If you are not determining everything that happens, there might be events you didn’t plan. Some of them might be happy surprises, but there could be others that you think are not so good. You might genuinely deplore some of what happens. In making this universe you realized that deplorable things could happen. However, you allowed for the possibility because without it there wouldn’t be the kinds of creatures you wanted to exist.
Okay, which of the two options is more like the universe God has made? There are some people who have a theology that says God is in control of everything, so the universe is the first kind. They think that in creating, God knows everything that will happen, and in deciding to create this universe, endorses what will happen down to the smallest detail. Notice that in this kind of universe creatures might imagine they have their own sphere of control, but that is a kind of illusion. It’s all in the script. I don’t think that this account describes our universe. I think that the kind of universe we live in is more like the second kind. We really do have a sphere of independence that allows us to affect what happens. Some things we do might be pleasing to the Creator, and some might not. In creating the kind of world where we have such powers, God has given us room to develop in ways we decide.
But couldn’t God establish control in another way? What if things are about to occur that are not to God’s liking? Couldn’t God change something so that things happen as God wants them to? Some people imagine God as maintaining control by this kind of miraculous intervention. But if we actually look at what happens in our world, it doesn’t seem that God is exercising this kind of control, or at least not very often. Most events seem to be products of the way the natural order works and the actions of finite creatures. If we imagine that God could always override those processes when things are not going well, we will surely wonder why God doesn’t override them more often to prevent really bad things.
But if God does give created beings the kind of independence to establish their own sphere of control, does that mean that God can’t influence things at all? Not necessarily. There are many possibilities in between God having total control over everything and God not being able to affect anything. But if we think that God’s purpose in creation involves creatures with real powers, the kind of influence God has would need to be consistent with allowing those creatures to exercise significant control. In other words, creating our kind of world involves a kind of letting go of power on God’s part.
The exact nature of the kind of power God has can be debated. But I think of God’s respect for the independence of creation as meaning that what God can do depends on how receptive created beings are to being channels through which God can operate. God’s power to affect what happens might be blocked by a kind of resistance, but it’s also possible that a kind of attunement between God and created beings might mean that God’s power can achieve remarkable results. Consider this claim in relation to the ancient Hebrew idea that there are particular places where the presence of God is especially manifest. We might say that God doesn’t just override the independence of created beings, but that those beings can open channels for God’s presence to have real effects.
Some people think that it is impious to say that there are things God cannot do. But thinking that God can do anything you can imagine raises a significant problem for people who believe in God. Even pious people find themselves wondering why God doesn’t do more to prevent awful tragedies. They may comfort themselves with the thought that there are reasons beyond their grasp. But when we combine a vivid realization of terrible things that happen with the idea that God can do anything, there is cause to wonder whether the God conceived in that way exists. One reason why many people give up on believing in God is a sense that the kind of God they believe in doesn’t fit with the kind of world they experience.
Instead of clinging to the idea that God can do whatever we can imagine, we might instead think that God’s power in our world is limited because creating a world where creatures like us exist involves a kind of pouring out of power. In our imagination, we may assume that God’s power is a matter of forcefully making things happen, but Christians say that the fullest revelation of God’s nature is in Jesus. In the cross of Jesus what we see is a kind of vulnerability and restraint resembling the relinquishing of power I have described relation to creation.
For a fuller discussion of this issue, see chapter 12 (Is God in Control of Everything?) in Changing Your Mind Without Losing Your Faith.