Can God sin?
Let us assume the classic monotheistic religions claim there exists a God who is all good, all knowing, and all powerful (omnibenevolent, omniscient, and omnipoent). It has long been thought the existence of God is questionable based on this line of thinking.
1. God is omnibenevolent (and therefore cannot sin).
2. God is omnipotent (and therefore can do anything).
3. If God is omnipotent, he can sin.
4. God can therefore cannot sin (from 1) and can sin (from 2).
5. God’s defining characteristics are incompatible; therefore he does not exist.
It seems, from the logic above, that God – if he exists – must be either able to sin and therefore not be omnibenevolent, or unable to sin and therefore not be omnipotent. We must wonder . . . if there were to be a God, could he sin?
I will definitively answer the question ‘can God sin, or do what is morally wrong?’ with yes. God is a being defined as all good, all knowing, and all powerful. Some philosophers have either discredited the existence of an omnipotent being altogether (my writings included), or believe that impeccability is defined as an inability to sin, rather than a choice not to sin. Theists also often believe that God, as a perfect being, cannot sin. Some believe that God can sin, but cannot bring himself to do so. I will argue that if God were to exist, as an omnipotent being, he would have to be able to sin. There are disagreements here that will need to be dealt with, though the disagreement is largely down to the definition of ‘omnipotence’. My primary claims are that God is capable of sin, and that God’s ability to sin does not affect God’s impeccability. I will conclude by making clear how this apparent inconsistency can be explained.
In the end, it will be made clear that the question theists should ponder is ‘if there is a God who can sin, why should we trust him?’. That, my friends, would make for interesting discussion.
I define omnipotence as the ability to bring about any logically possible state of affairs, meaning my argument would be written like this:
1. Omnipotence is the ability to bring about any logically possible state of affairs.
2. Sinning is a logically possible state of affairs.
3. God is omnipotent.
4. Therefore, God can sin.
The definition of omnipotence is widely debated, with some claiming that God’s omnipotence is not accurately described by my definition. It is argued that if God can sin, then God has the ability to remove his own divine status (which is reliant on God’s being all good, all knowing, and all powerful) – meaning he would no longer exist as God. From the claims God cannot destroy himself, and sinning would remove one of God’s main characteristics (omnibenevolence), one can make the point God must not be capable of sinning. This inability to sin would preserve God’s omnibenevolence; however, it then has an effect on God’s omnipotence. If omnipotence is tailored to what a being is logically capable of doing based on characteristics individual to them, the word means almost anyone could be considered omnipotent.
(For example, I could claim to be omnipotent excluding my inability to fly – which doesn’t count because I’m human and we lack that characteristic. In that scenario, I am all powerful, but there are things I cannot do – which is clearly not a case of omnipotence.)
It is clear omnipotence needs to be defined as the ability to bring about any logically possibly state of affairs. Any philosophers wishing to challenge this definition must ask themselves what the correct definition of omnipotence is, and whether or not philosophers on both sides of the debate will agree with it. The definition I have provided has no obvious loopholes to allow beings who are not truly all powerful to be called omnipotent. A further strength is that in this case, both the atheist and the theist arguments agree on this definition – indicating it has strength as a universal definition that will not lead to arguments about incorrect usage and semantics.
Some believe an omnipotent and all good being cannot exist because they equate being all good with being incapable of sin – and the ability to sin is one facet of being all powerful. Here, we disagree. I concede God must be able to bring about any logically possible state of affairs in order to be omnipotent, but in reply to the claim God can’t be able to sin and be perfectly good: it does not follow from God’s being able to sin that he will sin. It is possible to imagine a world in which God is necessarily all powerful, and contingently all good. In this situation, God must be all powerful in order to create the world, but his perfect goodness is a conscious choice he makes that assures sin will not take place. Theists in disagreement will reply that contingent omnibenevolence ultimately makes God capable of committing sin and opens up the question of whether or not God can be trusted. My reply is that for a theist, the question of whether or not we can trust God is surely more preferable than continuing to debate whether the characteristics of omnibenevolence and omnipotence are even compatible at all. A reply to my argument may be that God’s characteristic of omnibenevolence being merely contingent opens God to the possibility of destroying himself through removing a key aspect of his divine abilities. My reply to that line of thought is that God’s necessary omnipotence – his ability to do anything – is what makes him God. Removing omnipotence would reduce God to being only slightly above humanity. God’s omnibenevolence is merely a contingent characteristic that is worthy of our respect because he has the option to sin beyond what we could possibly imagine, yet refrains from doing so. Confusing necessary characteristics (omnipotence) with contingent characteristics (omnibenevolence) is a mistake that draws attention away from newer and more important questions like ‘can we trust God?’
In the first section I argued that God must be able to sin in order to be omnipotent; in this section, I make the claim that God’s ability to sin would not affect his impeccability. Theists are correct in believing that hypothetically, God’s inability to sin would lead to God being all good. If God were not able to do bad things, then it follows he would only do good things (or things that were not morally reprehensible, at least). This hypothetical situation has problems, however. It assumes the ability to sin would have an effect on God’s actions; when in reality, the ability to sin does not entail sin taking place. Omnibenevolence is achieved by doing no wrong; having the ability to do wrong is irrelevant. This means it is possible to imagine a world where God is capable of sinning, chooses not to sin, and is therefore all good – because God is not doing any wrong, his actions are praiseworthy.
Theists have replied to this by saying God is less praiseworthy if he is capable of sinning. This viewpoint may come about because the idea God is capable of sinning does not fit with how God is understood traditionally, or perhaps a God who is not necessarily omnibenevolent makes them question their trust in his protection of humanity. In either case, what merits being praiseworthy is key at this point in order to persuade this group that God’s contingent omnibenevolence is an acceptable idea. If God is necessarily omnipotent and contingently omnibenevolent, then he retains both the ability to bring about any logically possible state of affairs, including sin (omnipotence); while also staying all good. Two points are in my favour – the first is the situation I just mentioned allows for God to retain both of his traditional characteristics. The second point is God is more morally praiseworthy as a contingently omnibenevolent being than as a necessarily omnibenevolent being. The thinking is this: a necessarily omnibenevolent being has no choice but to do good things. If that is the case, they are not worthy of praise – they are simply performing the only actions that are available to them. Taken a step further, this can give a direct example of why God is more morally praiseworthy as a contingently omnibenevolent being than he would be as a necessarily omnibenevolent being. If God can sin, that means the option of decimating all of mankind and starting again is a real option. If mankind and its tendency towards sin is a disappointment to God, he is certainly more praiseworthy for having the option to demolish the world and start again, and refraining from doing so, then he would be if he were to not even to have the option and so refrained from doing it. The choice to remain all good is also one way of making sense of humanity’s goal to aim to be like God – if God chooses to be good, we have the ability to try and emulate that. If God was flawlessly good only down to the fact he is necessarily omnibenevolent, then using him as an example we should morally emulate is not fair.
So far I have argued that God is omnipotent, omnibenevolent, and capable of sin – I will now compare my findings with those that claim God can sin, but God cannot bring himself to do it – thus retaining his omnipotence and omnibenevolence. This claim is similar to my argument that God chooses not to sin, although God is less morally praiseworthy in the other claim than in my own. I define being unable to bring oneself to do something to mean that one is unable to deal with the consequences of one’s actions. Essentially the implication is then that God refrains from sinning because he will not like the repercussions of his own acts. Praising God for refraining from doing something he can’t do (sin) seems unreasonable. However, praising God for refraining from doing something where the results would make him unhappy is equally ridiculous. By allowing God not only the ability to sin, but the possibility of enjoying the results of his own sin, I am maintaining God’s omnipotence, omnibenevolence, and his praiseworthiness. If God has good reasons to sin (demolishing humanity to rebuild it from scratch) and he could bring himself to do it but chooses not to, God is certainly a praiseworthy being. One may argue that God’s inability to bring himself to sin is not a weakness on God’s part, but a sign of his great love for us. In reply, I would say God’s being ‘unable to bring himself’ to sin is simply another way of saying he is incapable of sinning, because the results are the same – an omnipotent being who can’t do bring about all that is logically possible – and as shown, this is not a satisfactory conclusion.
My opponents and I both believe that God’s omnibenevolence is contingent, but some add to this a further unnecessary premise – if God sins, he no longer has the characteristics required of God, and is therefore no longer God. Here, they face my objection. If God’s omnipotence is necessary, then God must be all powerful – a being cannot be considered God if they cannot bring about all logically possible states of affairs. However, if God’s omnibenevolence is merely contingent, then God sinning and no longer being all good does not affect his status as God. You say I am challenging traditional religion too strongly. My reply is I am taking God’s necessary omnipotence and his contingent omnibenevolence to their logical extreme: God’s being all powerful is an essential characteristic, God’s being all good is not. Therefore, it is logically possible for there to be a God who is necessarily all powerful and contingently all good, who then sins, is no longer contingently all good, but retains the status of God due to retaining the necessary characteristic of being all powerful.
I have argued that God is omnipotent, omnibenevolent, capable of sin, and that his ability to sin does not affect his impeccability. God’s being able to sin is a good way to avoid issues of semantics when discussing the existence of God. If atheists and theists were to take on my thinking – that if God exists, he can sin – then debates can start about more important questions like ‘if God were to exist, why trust him?’, rather than continuing to debate whether God can be both omnibenevolent and omnipotent. The arguments I have outlined above challenge the traditional view of God as a necessarily omnibenevolent and necessarily omnipotent being, but the traditional theist who challenges my argument then faces the difficult task of defining omnipotence satisfactorily. The atheist who challenges God’s ability to sin is then limited to defending why if there is a God, he would fit the traditional characteristics of being necessarily omnibenevolent and necessarily omnipotent – which would be unsatisfying because that definition of God may be the reason they were an atheist in the first place.
My beliefs and your own may differ; but I have proved that if God were to exist he would be capable of sin. What kind of destruction could an omnipotent being bring about? So many questions to ponder . . .