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Feedback archiveFeedback 2008

If God can do anything, then can He make a being more powerful than Himself?

What does God’s omnipotence really mean?

Jonathan Sarfati

Published: 12 January 2008

Impossible cube based on L.A. Necker's cube

The ‘impossible cube’ seen from an angle which produces an illusion of impossibility. Structure based on L.A. Necker’s cube, and features in M.C. Escher’s lithograph Belvedere (Credit: wikipedia.org)

Roslyn B from Tasmania, Australia asked:

My son (grade 8) asked me a question which he was asked by a peer (who says he's an atheist) during one of his conversations. I tried to find in FAQ, but couldn’t see an answer. The question is twofold & really a trick question: Is God all powerful and can He do anything? Yes; So, could God create someone/something more powerful than himself—thereby making someone/something more powerful than himself? My answer was, yes God can do anything, He is all-powerful. But God is also all-wise, all-knowing, all-perfect etc and to create something/someone greater than Himself would be contrary to the rest of His nature. What would you say to this question?

Basic answer

This is a variant of an old trick question: ‘If God can do anything, can He make a rock too heavy for him to lift?’ or ‘ … can He make two plus two equal five’ or ‘make a square circle’, etc.

The basic answer is:

An all powerful God can do or make anything, but it's meaningless to say that he can do or make a nothing. A logically contradictory state of affairs is not a thing at all, but NOTHING.

The point is, ‘a rock too heavy for God to lift’ is really ‘a rock too heavy for a being who can lift anything’, so it is a self-contradiction. Your son’s friend’s example really resolves to ‘a being more powerful than a supremely powerful being’, so is likewise self contradictory. A ‘square circle’ and ‘2+2=5’ are likewise contradictory states of affairs. Therefore these are all nothings. And a meaningless nothing doesn't become a ‘something’ just because someone puts the phrase, ‘an all-powerful God could’ in front of it.

An all powerful God can do or make anything, but it’s meaningless to say that he can do or make a nothing. … ‘a rock too heavy for an being who can lift anything’ … is a self-contradiction. … a meaningless nothing doesn’t become a ‘something’ just because someone puts the phrase, ‘an all-powerful God could’ in front of it.

So the boring old heavy rock problem, or this current variant 'making a being more powerful than himself', just says that God cannot do a nothing, so it's meaningless.

The argument of your son’s acquaintance is a type of the Fallacy of contradictory premises. In logic, a contradiction is necessarily false, and an argument with a false premise can tell us nothing about the truth or falsity of a conclusion (see the fallacy of denying the antecedent in the paper Logic and Creation). This means that the sceptical argument cancels itself out right at the start.

Note also, ‘all-powerful’ surely means the power to do anything that power can do. How much power would make a square circle or any other of the self-contradictory things? A hydrogen bomb, a supernova? Of course not—no amount of power can make a square circle, because it is it not something any power can achieve. So most theologians define ‘omnipotence’ as the ability to achieve what is logically possible. So this doesn't include the contradictory things as above.

C.S. Lewis

C.S. Lewis had actually long ago pointed out the above points in his book The Problem of Pain (1940) in a chapter, Divine Omnipotence:

Omnipotence means ‘power to do all, or everything’. And we are told in Scripture that ‘with God all things are possible’. It is common enough, in argument with an unbeliever, to be told that God, if He existed and were good, would do this or that; and then, if we point out that the proposed action is impossible, to be met with the retort ‘But I thought God was supposed to be able to do anything’. This raises the whole question of impossibility.

In ordinary usage the word impossible generally implies a suppressed clause beginning with the word unless. Thus it is impossible for me to see the street from where I sit writing at this moment; that is, it is impossible to see the street unless I go up to the top floor where I shall be high enough to overlook the intervening building. If I had broken my leg I should say ‘But it is impossible to go up to the top floor’–meaning, however, that it is impossible unless some friends turn up who will carry me. Now let us advance to a different plane of impossibility, by saying, ‘It is, at any rate, impossible to see the street so long as I remain where I am and the intervening building remains where it is’. Someone might add ‘unless the nature of space, or of vision, were different from what it is’. I do not know what the best philosophers and scientists would say to this, but I should have to reply ‘I don’t know whether space and vision could possibly have been of such a nature as you suggest’. Now it is clear that the words could possibly here refer to some absolute kind of possibility or impossibility which is different from the relative impossibilities and impossibilities we have been considering. I cannot say whether seeing round corners is, in this new sense, possible or not, because I do not know whether it is self-contradictory or not. But I know very well that if it is self-contradictory it is absolutely impossible. The absolutely impossible may also be called the intrinsically impossible because it carries its impossibility within itself, instead of borrowing it from other impossibilities which in their turn depend upon others. It has no unless clause attached to it. It is impossible under all conditions and in all worlds and for all agents.

It is no more possible for God than for the weakest of His creatures to carry out both of two mutually exclusive alternatives; not because His power meets an obstacle, but because nonsense remains nonsense even when we talk it about God.

‘All agents’ here includes God Himself. His Omnipotence means power to do all that is intrinsically possible, not to do the intrinsically impossible. You may attribute miracles to Him, but not nonsense. This is no limit to His power. If you choose to say ‘God can give a creature free will and at the same time withhold free will from it’, you have not succeeded in saying anything about God: meaningless combinations of words do not suddenly acquire meaning simply because we prefix them with the two other words ‘God can’. It remains true that all things are possible with God: the intrinsic impossibilities are not things but nonentities. It is no more possible for God than for the weakest of His creatures to carry out both of two mutually exclusive alternatives; not because His power meets an obstacle, but because nonsense remains nonsense even when we talk it about God.

What ‘omnipotence’ really means

Christian theologians have often applied certain ‘omni–’ (Latin for all, every) attributes to God: omnipotence (all powerful), omniscience (all knowing), and omnipresence (present everywhere)—see God’s omni Attributes by Andrew Kulikovsky.

The biblical derivation includes the expression ‘Lord God Παντοκράτωρ (Pantokratōr)’ (2 Corinthians 6:18, Revelation passim), which means ‘all-ruler’, and is usually translated ‘almighty’ (cf. Martin Luther’s German Bible allmächtige). When Jerome translated the Bible into Latin in the 5th century (the Vulgate), he rendered Παντοκράτωρ as omnipotens, from which we derive our word omnipotent.

Omnipotence [means] God has no limitations from outside Himself … There is nothing self-contradictory about the God of the Bible, as opposed to misunderstanding of certain terms theologians use to describe Him.

But to avoid all the nonsense with such terms, it’s important to realise that theologians first applied them negatively rather than positively. I.e., they were meant to show that God has no limitations from outside Himself. This covers points like this critic, since there is no limitation in being unable to do a ‘nothing’.

It also covers biblical teachings such that God cannot sin, because this would go against His nature, but this is an internal limitation and not from outside. The Bible explicitly says that He cannot approve evil or tolerate wrongdoing (Habakkuk 1:13), ‘He cannot deny himself’ (2 Timothy 2:13), ‘cannot lie’ (Titus 1:2). So you were right to point out that God’s power never goes against His nature.

(See also the previous feedback What is good? which answers another famous dilemma, showing:

‘God indeed commands things which are good, but the reason they are good is because they reflect God’s own nature. So the goodness does not come ultimately from God’s commandments, but from His nature, which then results in good commandments.’)

It is not the fault of the theologians that critics, like this 8th-grade classmate, take them hyper-literally and use them as ‘gotchas’ or as an excuse for apostasy. There is nothing self-contradictory about the God of the Bible, as opposed to misunderstanding of certain terms theologians use to describe Him. God is no way invalidated because certain omni-terms contradict each other when misunderstood.

An alternative Trinitarian solution

God is Triune—three Persons, one Being—see articles under Is one God really three persons? In the Incarnation (as celebrated at Christmas), The Second Person of the Trinity ‘emptied himself’ by adding human nature as a servant (Philippians 2:5–11). This meant that He voluntarily gave up independent use of certain divine powers (see also the discussion on this emptying or kenosis in Doctrine of the Person of Christ). In this case, God the Father could create a rock too heavy for God the Son to lift. Something like that likely happened when Jesus was evidently too weakened by sleep deprivation and the ferocious Roman scourging to carry the crossbeam on the way to the Crucifixion, which is why Simon of Cyrene was forced to carry it for Him (Matthew 27:32, Mark 15:21, Luke 23:26).

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