Thursday, March 10, 2011

If God can't do something, how is he still omnipotent?


I’ve recently had debates or talks with people about how we can say that God “can’t” do something, and yet he still remains omnipotent. Examples that you might have heard are questions like “Can God die?” or “Can God make a rock so big he himself can’t lift it?”, etc. You've likely heard them.

In fact, I’d argue that there is quite a list of things which God cannot do. These include:

God cannot die
God can’t contradict himself
God cannot be deceived
God cannot improve himself
God cannot bend a paperclip into a square circle
God cannot lie
God cannot stop loving
God cannot be surprised
God cannot create a world with morally free creatures which cannot independently choose evil

There is much more to this list, but you get the idea. In short – there is quite a bit that we would be logical to state that God cannot do.

In fact, in some cases to say that God cannot do something is reflective of God’s perfection. For instance, because you and I can lie, and God cannot, that doesn't mean that this is a limitation of God or his power. We would say it is a good thing for God to never lie – the fact that we can do something which God cannot does not make that a limiting factor for God’s omnipotence!

So, that brings us to the original question – If God can’t do something is he still omnipotent? As you may have guessed, my answer is yes! He can be omnipotent. It all comes down to the definition of the word. (Doesn’t it seem that many issues do?)

If you just say that Omnipotent means "all-powerful," that definition isn't specific enough.

If you say that Omnipotent means "the ability to do anything you want," that's closer but still not correct. Even if God wanted to make a square circle out of a paper clip, he couldn't.

Here’s a definition we might be able to use: Omnipotence is having all the power one needs to do anything which power can do.

The example I just gave above about the square circle is an example of this. Making a square circle isn’t in the realm of “power” – it doesn’t matter how strong you are, this doesn’t lie within the realm of what power can do.

This clearly has implications on free will, and is part of the answer of “If God is all-powerful, why is there evil in the world?” If God wants to let us freely choose, then he has to allow for the possibility for us to choose evil – that’s just how a world with morally free creatures works.

Anyway, hope this makes some sense! I had talked about it enough recently that I felt it warranted a post of its own. Any thoughts? Let me know!