“God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent — it says so right here on the label. If you have a mind capable of believing all three of these divine attributes simultaneously, I have a wonderful bargain for you. No checks, please. Cash and in small bills.” (Robert Heinlein, Time Enough For Love, New York: Ace Books, 1987, p. 247.)
As a science-fiction reader, I find that Heinlein is absolutely one of my favorite atheists. I find his theology as fascinating and infuriating as his novels: often insightful, occasionally brilliant, and then suddenly descending into downright nincompoopery. The above quote is a perfect example of the latter.
Leaving aside for the moment that only the Western and Middle-Eastern monotheistic religions have come close to assigning the above attributes to God, even for Christianity (which is pretty plainly Heinlein’s target) my search of the NIV Bible for those terms returned precisely zero hits for any of them. So… what label would this be? However, to avoid argument, let’s stipulate that whether it’s stated or not, it’s pretty much believed to be true.
First off, there’s no actual argument, or even insight, here. This is what C.S. Lewis calls “flippancy” in the Screwtape Letters; the assumption that a joke or a point has been made. It works when you’re playing to an audience that pretty much agrees with you already, and at no other time. Why Heinlein thinks these things are mutually contradictory, I can’t say, since he hasn’t deigned to tell us. But I think I have a pretty shrewd idea. Unfortunately, it’s pretty tiresome, and it’s old.
I suspect that Heinlein’s reasoning would roughly run thusly: that a God who was omnipotent is a contradiction in terms, or at least in the observable universe, since God pretty plainly allows many things to happen that He cannot approve of without being very definitely not benevolent. Unless of course, He does not know of these things. Since He does allow them, He must be less than omnipotent, omniscient, or omnibenevolent.
The problem of course is that Heinlein, who would doubtless call bullshit (as well he should) on anyone using engineering terms, or military terms outside their professionally-known meanings, has only a tyro’s grasp of theology, which, as it doesn’t interest him anyway, Heinlein does not care about. I see this often in discussions with atheists. They’re not interested in how these terms have always been defined or discussed by thousands of years of faithful Christians or Jews. They’ve seen a flaw, and by Christ (or not) they’re going to point it out.
I shouldn’t really have to say, but apparently I do, that omnipotence means that God can do anything doable. It is no argument against it that He cannot accomplish paradox, such as the old saw about making a rock so big He can’t lift it. Likewise, God is not less than omniscient for not knowing things that do not exist (such as who is going to heaven based on choices that they literally have not made), any more than a mathematician is “humbled” by a five-year-old who asks him what color the number seven is. Finally, God is not open to the charge of failing in omnibenevolence if he visits punishment on the unjust, or allows other agents to commit injustice, if He indeed does have both the power to correct injustices and the wisdom to know what justice is. “Omnibenevolence” does not mean that God is good to all people at all times, still less that those people would always perceive the good being done to them accurately.
The dishonesty and ignorance here is for someone like Heinlein to insist on the absolute definitions of amateur or non-believers while ignoring or discounting those whose vocation it has been to discuss and study such things. To condemn religion as a game for fools by insisting that God doesn’t meet these definitions according to your interpretation of them is both ignorant and unfair. What, after all, would it look like if I criticized Heinlein’s The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress for flinging goods Earthward by catapult as scientifically ridiculous… because I insisted that “catapult” must describe a machine that uses knotted ropes and stressed wood for its tension power, rather than a thirty-kilometer long, fusion-powered, magnetic mass driver? It would be like suing Nabisco for false advertising because one of their Fig Newtons doesn’t weigh 0.22 pounds in Earth’s gravity.
To such a discourtesy and to such ignorance, I imagine Heinlein would have told me to go to hell, and I would most assuredly deserve the invitation. And so does he, when he uses arguments that are just as specious and delivered from such an ignorant place. It is wise for us to remember that we cannot use such simple definitions, of course, and that theology requires some complex thought. But we must at least be willing to engage with that thought, or our theology – or our atheology – will be disastrously wrong as Heinlein’s.