If God is all-powerful, why did he allow Hurricanes Katrina and Rita? Or the Asian tsunami? Or September 11? Or the Holocaust? Or bubonic plague?

Whenever incomprehensible, seemingly random tragedy affects us, we humans try to make sense of it--which is why, as we deal with the wreckage of Katrina and Rita, we ask about God's role. We wonder: If God is all-powerful, couldn't he have prevented the hurricanes? But since he didn't prevent them, what kind of vindictive God is that? (And who wants such a God?)

Then the next thought swirls to the surface: If God isn't inherently cruel, is it possible He isn't actually omnipotent? In other words: God can be good, or He can be powerful, but He can't be both. The fact of random human suffering has always been the thorniest problem for theologians and great thinkers to reconcile with the belief in an all-powerful, benevolent personal deity--the God of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

And so, as Katrina's wreckage became increasingly clear early in September, evangelical theologian Tony Campolo took up this question, vehemently rejecting the suggestion that God was somehow punishing people with a hurricane. "When the floods swept into the Gulf Coast, God was the first one who wept," he wrote. "Perhaps we would do well to listen to the likes of Rabbi Harold Kushner, who contends that God is not really as powerful as we have claimed. Nowhere in the Hebrew Scriptures does it say that God is omnipotent." Basically, Kushner and Campolo argue that God is doing the best He can, but lacks the power to do more. He is infinitely resourceful, just not utterly sovereign.

Many Christians and Muslims reject these ideas, however. "These are roads we dare not take, for the God of the Bible causes the rising and falling of nations and empires, and His rule is active and universal. Limited sovereignty is no sovereignty at all," writes R. Albert Mohler, Jr., president of Southern Baptist Seminary. "We will either take our stand with God's self-revelation in the Bible, or we are left to invent a deity of our own imagination."

Mohler believes the Bible "categorically" reveals that God is omnipotent and omniscient. "The sovereignty of God is the bedrock affirmation of biblical theism," he writes.

Muslims hold a similar position, always describing Allah as all-powerful. Some examples from the Qur'an: "Unto God belongs the sovereignty of the heavens and the earth and all that is therein, and it is He who has power over all things" (Chapter 5, verse 120); "He is the All-mighty, the All-wise. To Him belongs the Kingdom of the heavens and the earth; He gives life, and He makes to die, and He is powerful over everything. (Chapter 57, verses 1-6)

Then how to explain evil and suffering?

"We cannot understand why God would allow sickness and suffering, but we must affirm that even these realities are rooted in sin and its cosmic effects," writes Mohler.

"We have to be careful in imposing too much significance onto our gods..."

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  • Tony Campolo: Katrina's Not God's Wrath--or His Will
  • Many people say they don't understand God's ways--and aren't always happy with Him--but they don't question God's omnipotence: "We can never know why some prayers are answered and some seem to take a back seat," writes Beliefnet member proudmommy. "We can never fully understand or appreciate the greatness that is God. He does what he does, when he wants. He is not our puppet, nor do we control Him."

    But other Beliefnet members disagree. F1Fan responded: "We have to be careful in imposing too much significance onto our gods, which then might lead us to create unreasonable expectations. [Another Beliefnet member] said some of his family "left" god after family tragedy. This happens when people believe that faith and belief is sufficient to ward off accidents and tragedy, that god "watches" out for them..We humans do create myth and religion to help soothe the dilemma of our emotions balancing with evolving intelligence."

    Of course, millions of people don't ever deal with these questions because they reject the concept of a personal deity. Buddhism, for example, has no omnipotent, creator God who exists apart from this or any other universe. Instead, Buddhism focuses on each individual seeking to attain enlightenment.

    Interestingly, Buddhism's key insight is that there is nothing that permanently exists--a concept with which members of Western faiths are now trying to grapple as the storms wash away the life possessions of millions of people.

    Still others solve the problem of God's omnipotence (or lack of it) by surrendering to their own ignorance. Dr. (Mani) Yegnasubramanian, a Vedic scripture teacher, comes at the issue by invoking God's "mystery"-but not God's "ominipotence."

    "Acts of god are always mysterious and peculiar," Yegnasubramanian writes. "Questions of 'why' can remain unanswered forever. Even if answered, that answer cannot bring back the lost lives."

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  • Hinduism's Understanding of God's Omnipotence
  • Tony Campolo: Katrina's Not God's Wrath--or His Will
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