What Kind of God Do Monotheists Believe In?

by Benjamin Studebaker

Yesterday, I did some writing about the conflict between secular moral theory and theistic religious moral theory. Today, this has me thinking in greater theoretical detail about the monotheistic position specifically and what it might entail. In the course of this thinking, I have run into something of a dilemma.

As regular readers might recall, I stated yesterday that all theistic religious doctrines require three core assumptions which are taken by adherents on faith:

  1. There is a god (or gods).
  2. It is possible to know the will of god (or of the gods).
  3. The will of  god (or the gods) is good.

Polytheists often conceive of a set of gods that share power and compete with one another. For this reason, polytheism rarely yields a unitary moral theory–any given action may bring the favor of one god and the scorn of another. It follows from there that polytheists would often declare themselves partisans of one god, hoping that this god would protect them from the others. In Greek mythology, Athena famously competes with Poseidon to be the patron god (or goddess) of Athens, and in Greece and Rome various gods were affiliated with different segments of society.

In a typical polytheistic system, no one god is omnipotent, omniscient, or omnibenevolent. The gods compete with each other for power, hide information from one another, and do not behave in accordance with any uniform moral code. Consequently, from the perspective of human adherents, the gods often appear morally arbitrary and deeply frightening.

Monotheistic religions attempt to conceive of god in an entirely different way. For monotheism (especially Christianity and Islam–less so Judaism), god is unitary because a unitary god allows for a single divine will. Without any other divine wills in competition, this will can dictate acceptable moral behavior, allowing for a uniform moral theory. Each monotheistic religion claims to know this will and to know that this will is good. Among the monotheistic religions, the only debate is over who has the correct interpretation of the unitary divine will. All monothesitic religions recognize the one god as omnipotent, all-powerful.

Sociologically, this is a really useful conception if you’re trying to generate a particular kind of human behavior to the exclusion of all contradictory behaviors. But conceptually, it runs into trouble. Monotheists necessarily must assume #3–that the will of god is good. This requires that god be not merely omnipotent, but omnibenevolent. This is a tall task for any being–to be omnibenevolent, a being must know what any possible being should do in any possible situation. Correspondingly, omnibenevolence entails a kind of omniscience. This in and of itself is not problematic for most monotheists. Many monotheists conceive of god as omnipresent and consequently omniscient.

The trouble is that many monotheists also believe that they have free will and that god will judge them for their actions. Here omniscience and omnipotence together combine to create conceptual tension. If god is omnipotent, he can create any kind of being he wants, and if he is omniscient he must know everything about the beings he creates and consequently he must know how they will behave in any given situation. If people truly have free will such they truly have the freedom to choose how they will act for themselves, then god cannot know what choices they will make and his omniscience collapses. If god is not omniscient, then it is possible that god does not know everything about the good, and his omnibenevolence is threatened. Alternatively, if people are free but god already knows when he gives them their freedom what they are going to do with it, then human behavior is predetermined at the moment of creation, because god knows what kinds of beings he is creating and how they are going to behave in all future situations. In this scenario, free will appears to have no meaningful content. If  human behavior is determined by the way human beings are created by the deity, the deity has total control over human behavior leaving no possible scope for freedom of will.

To make matters still more bizarre, if god enforces his moral theory through a system of punishments and rewards in the afterlife (or, alternatively, through a karma system in this life), then an omnipotent and omniscient god is effectively punishing and rewarding people for things he already knew from the moment of creation they were going to do. In this case, why would god bother creating at all? The outcomes of all decisions god might make are already fully known to him. It is as if he were deciding whether or not to make a movie he could already see effortlessly.

While some monotheists have dumped free will and accepted this vision of god (e.g. the Calvinist notion of predestination), most monotheists find this solution dissatsifying, not only because it deprives them of free will, but because this conception of god is so weird. It seems odd that such a god would bother to create anything, let alone morally regulate his creation.

So what’s the alternative? Monotheists can attempt to preserve the concept of omniscience in part rather than in full, by claiming that god is morally and normatively omniscient but not descriptively. This means that god always knows what any given being should do in any given situation, but he does not necessarily know what they will do. He might be omnipresent, and might be able to know what was done after the fact, but he lacks total predictive capability. This necessarily diminishes god’s omnipotence, because it implies that when god creates beings, he does not know what those beings will do in every given situation. This further implies that there are additional factors influencing the behavior of the beings, and the monotheist can slot free will into this role, claiming that the malevolence in the world stems exclusively from human choice (e.g. murder, rape, etc.) or god’s desire to punish past human choices (i.e. through natural disasters).

But this may not wholly satisfy–we often find cases in which malign things happen to innocent beings that do not appear to have transgressed the will of the deity. To preserve god as omnibenevolent, polytheistic notions start to be smuggled in. Additional malevolent beings are added (e.g. the devil, fallen angels, etc.) to account for these phenomena. But the existence of these beings either supposes polytheism–that god is in competition with other gods–or it supposes that god is much weaker than we have otherwise been led to believe, that these malign entities are beings that god has lost the ability to control. If these beings can do malevolent things without punishment, it follows that human beings might be able to do so as well, as people who do not believe they will be rewarded by god might instead choose to become partisans of these beings, much as they might become partisans of alternative deities in a polytheistic system.

To avoid this outcome, the malign entities are often said to be themselves god’s will. But if god wills malign entities, his omnibenevolence is once again suspect, and the existence of the malign entities does nothing to solve the aforementioned problem.

Generally, the monotheist is forced to say that god is beyond human comprehension, or that he works in mysterious ways. But if god’s will is mysterious, then #2 collapses–it is not possible to know the will of a mysterious deity with any precision. This is how deism arises out of monotheism, and because deism cannot produce a moral doctrine based on the will of god (because deism supposes god’s will to be unknowable), the deist is then forced to become either a nihilist or a secular moral theorist.

Alternatively, the monotheist drops his belief in god’s omnibenevolence and comes to believe that god is morally neutral or even possibly nefarious, at which point he either becomes a nihilist or a secular moral theorist.

It follows from this discussion that most monotheistic religions would seek to restrict access to theological education. Even if the monotheistic religions deny that these are the outcomes of this reasoning process, they would surely fear that these outcomes would be mistakenly reached by some of those who would study these issues, and that those individuals would spread heretical views throughout the general population. From a certain point of view, one could say that this is precisely what happened during the enlightenment–a great many educated people began embracing deist conclusions and formulating secular moral theories to challenge the traditional doctrine of the churches. Over the past several centuries in western societies, these secular doctrines have continued to assimilate people and continue to push the churches into watering down interpretations of their scriptures that deeply conflict with the most widespread secular moral theories.