International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes

by Charles Hartshorne

Introductory Essay by V. V. Raman

This book by an eminent American philosopher of religion shows how one can be religious (a Christian in this case), while questioning basic doctrines and dogmas.

In Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes, Charles Hartshorne lists six ideas about God held by many philosophers and theologians over the ages which he finds unacceptable. He calls the attributes of God (in the Abrahamic traditions) ‘mistakes’, and explains why. These mistakes are not intrinsic to Christianity, but are paraphernalia which accrued as a result of the discovery of ancient Greek philosophy by Islamic scholars and scholastics of the Christian world. They were absent in the earlier mystical phase of the religion.

The first mistake is the idea that God is perfect. This error can be traced clearly to the writings of ancient Greek thinkers like Plato. It is the most cardinal mistake in that other misconceptions about God follow as corollaries from this. The second  mistake is the belief that God is all powerful (omnipotent). It  follows that God has the capacity to avert unpleasant occurrences. But since unpleasant things do occur, it would seem that God chooses not to use His power to avert or remove them. This makes even the best believers question God’s existence.

The third mistake is omniscience: the idea that God knows everything, including what we will be thinking and doing in future. This is inconsistent with the notion of free will which God is supposed to have given us, and it is another necessary consequence of the notion of God’s perfection. How can a perfect God be ignorant of anything? So a perfect God has to be omniscient.

The next theological mistake is that God’s goodness is impersonal, that  it is a universal effusion of limitless love, like the sun’s rays permeating space. Such a love has no concern about whether there are recipients or not, or whether they need or can survive with such abundance. Abundant rain can cause a deluge that can drown people.

The fifth mistake is God’s assurance of immortality. A perfect God simply will not let us become cold corpses. God is supposed to do this for us in order to bestow either eternal happiness for being good or terrible punishment for our misdeeds. The final mistake, according to Hartshorne, is imagining that there are revelations from God which are therefore without blemish or error.  

Hartshorne explains how perfection, omnipotence, and omniscience can be interpreted differently. He articulates the position of ‘dual transcendence’ whereby apparently contradictory conditions on the divine are reconciled according to their application in different respects. By this means, he seeks to make the above divine characteristics  logically tenable and spiritually meaningful.

The book goes on, in Chapter 2, to examine the difference between the physical and the spiritual, and male bias in theology. Then there is a view of creation through evolution. The book also presents some moral arguments against the existence of Heaven and Hell, and a number of other topics in the concluding chapter.

Though critical of traditional theological views, the author also expresses the conviction, in speaking of the big bang, that “it is not the proper role of physics to attempt to deal with really ultimate questions” [135].