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The Omnipotence of God
 

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The Omnipotence of God

by Rev. Dr. Gregory Neal

Why is God God? Have you ever asked yourself that question? Have you ever wondered, “Why is God God, and not somebody or something else?” What makes God God?

Theologians, teachers, and preachers like me take great delight in making up all sorts of big, long, important and technical-sounding words to describe what are, in reality, rather simple, straightforward faith-concepts. One of these terms is Omnipotence. It is built from two words: Omni, which means “all;” and potent, which means “powerful.” When we speak of God’s power and strength, God’s creative majesty and wonder, we are speaking about God’s Omnipotence ... the ability of God to do that which God wants to do. Sometimes Christians, and even non-Christians, will try to claim that omnipotence means “the power to do absolutely anything.” This is somewhat misleading, as we shall subsequently see, for God’s omnipotence is totally defined by God’s Will, and not by sheer, unadulterated power. Indeed, for classical Christian philosophical theology, omnipotence is simply God’s “ability to do that which God wants done.”

It is this characteristic – the ability to do what God wants to do – that makes God God. I praise God that God is all-loving, all-forgiving, and all-accepting; but these wonderful and important characteristics of God’s nature don’t make God God. God is God because God is God.[1]

This idea is known as ontology: a statement of fundamental being. I am, fundamentally, a human being. My identity as a Texan, as a North American, as a descendant of European ancestry, and even as a male, minister, and Christian, is all wonderful and true … but fundamentally, I am a human being. A glass of water may be cool, pleasing to the taste, refreshing as it is being drunk, but it is, fundamentally, a glass of water. And God is, fundamentally – or, as theologians like to say (again, using another big word), ontologically – God. God is and, by virtue of what it means to be God, cannot not be.

This is exactly what God said to Moses at the site of the burning bush. Moses asked:

“If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’”[2]

This is a statement of ontological being. It is sometimes also translated:

“I AM that I AM”

We’re not talking about Popeye the Sailor Man. The essential nature of God’s being is, indeed, ultimate being. “To be or not to be” is meaningless when one is speaking of God … God simply IS. God’s name, “I AM,” is fundamentally descriptive of the fact that God is the one who cannot not be. God is because God IS. Period. And this essential characteristic of God’s being is so because God is omnipotent. Indeed, for many theologians it is this ontological aspect of being that is the perfect expression of omnipotence. We, who are not omnipotent, can easily not be. We once were not, and we will one day cease to be in this world. But God always has been and always will be … and this is the ontological essence of God’s power. Omnipotence, for God, is the result and manifestation of God’s foundational being.

Some people love to attack this conception of God because they believe there is a logical flaw in it.[3] One of the classic questions that is asked of students in Philosophy 101, in Introduction to Ethics, or in courses on Logic or in the field of Physics known as Quantum Mechanics, is this one:

Can God make a rock so big that even God can’t move it?

Think about that for a moment; it’s a tricky question. If you answer “yes, God can make such a rock,” then you’re going to have to explain why God’s inability to move the rock doesn’t constitute a lack of omnipotence. If, on the other hand, you’re going to say “no, God can’t make a rock so big that even God can’t move it,” then you’re again forced into explaining why God’s inability to make such a rock doesn’t constitute a lack of omnipotence. Ouch!

Yes, this is a tricky question ... it is tricky because it is a trick question. The question is designed to pit God’s omnipotence against itself in a contradictory framework of creation and manipulation. It is specifically designed to try and invalidate omnipotence altogether by forcing God to work at least two contradictory and competing actions at the same time. In this way it is precisely like asking:

“Can God make triangles that are round?”

or

“Can God make circles that have 4 equal sides

at 90 degree angles to each other?”

or

“Can God kill Godself?”

Some people take great joy in saying that, if God lacks the ability to do any of these things, then God isn’t omnipotent. They believe that a lack of power in any of these areas constitutes an invalidation of God’s omnipotence. If this were as far as their argument ran, it would be ridiculous enough, but they don’t leave it here. In an example of arrogance that leaves even me speechless[4], they frequently go on to assert that: “Since the Christian God is universally described as being omnipotent, that God cannot exist!”[5]

Anyone who thinks about these questions for a while can see the flaw inherent in each. In the first one God is asked to make round triangles ... totally disregarding the fact that triangles aren’t, by their very nature as geometric shapes, round. The demand that God create round triangles is a demand for God to work ontological nonsense. So also with the second question: a circle with 4 equal sides that are at 90 degree angles to each other isn’t, by pure definition, a circle – we call such geometric objects squares. Likewise for the third question: one of God’s essential attributes is “being.” God simply cannot not be. Non-existence is not an option for God, and this isn’t due to any lack of God’s ability or power, but due entirely to what it means for God to be God. As I have already pointed out, God is. Hence, God – by pure definition of what it means to be God – cannot kill Godself.[6]

The long and short of it is that these kinds of questions demand that God work contradictory nonsense; they demand that God produce or do something which violates the very nature of things. Since round triangles are not triangles but circles, such are not ontologically possible. This kind of observation doesn’t seem to reach such critics, however. The response I have most frequently received to my observations can be characterized by the taunt: “But, if God can’t or won’t make round triangles, then God can’t do everything!”

Their claim is illogical. Demanding that God work logical nonsense, and then judging God to not be omnipotent because God doesn’t (or “can’t”), is, itself, illogical. The same is true with the question about God making a rock so big that God cannot move it. Nevertheless, there is a possible answer to this question which I have found helpful. It takes a bit of imagination to comprehend the conditions which enable a satisfactory response, but the exercise is worth the effort – if only for the joy of seeing crossed-eyes! Here goes!

For a rock to be so large that God couldn’t move it there would have to be no place in time or space to move it to. In other words, by pure definition of omnipotence, the limitation upon manipulation must be located not in God’s ability to move the rock, but in the nature of the universe. The universe is spatially and temporally finite; hence a rock that filled it would leave no place for it to be moved to.[7]

Objections to such an answer have been raised from several quarters. Firstly, one person objected that the Universe wasn’t finite but, rather, infinite. This objection is invalid because the universe is finite. True, it is HUGE – far beyond our ability to conceive – but it is NOT infinite. If you were to travel far enough in one direction, you would end up back where you started; the Universe is a closed system. As such, the universe is finite and, hence, could theoretically be filled up completely.

Another objection to my answer has been that such a “rock” wouldn’t be a “rock” and that the question doesn’t ask just about size, but may be understood as also asking about mass. Indeed, nearly any other quality that would make the rock beyond the ability of God to manipulate would also be fair-game for this mental exercise. In other words: “It could be that the rock is so greasy that God can’t lift it.”[8]  Interesting idea, eh? Setting aside the fact that this is a rephrasing of the original question, let’s take a look at it.

 Take mass first: could God make a rock so massive, so heavy, with so much inertia, that even God’s omnipotence couldn’t move it? The problem with this modification to the question is that it places an artificial limit on the nature of God’s creative omnipotence so as to enable an invalidation of God’s manipulative omnipotence. It is trying to claim: “If God can’t make a rock so massive that God cannot move it, then God is not omnipotent.” This question, and the conclusion which is drawn, is, again, like demanding that God make round triangles. How?

Omnipotence demands that God can move anything. Indeed, God can move a pebble that has an infinite mass without any trouble at all. Since God can move an infinite mass, there is nothing that is too massive or too heavy that God cannot move.

“That means that God is not omnipotent, because God cannot make a rock so massive that God can't move it!”

No it doesn’t. All this means is that the nature of the universe, and the nature of mass itself, is insufficient to test God’s manipulative or creative omnipotence.

This same response applies to the rock being too greasy for God to lift. Infinite greasiness wouldn’t be a sufficient quality to foil God’s ability to move the rock, for God has manipulative dexterity over even infinitely greasy rocks. Hence, slipperiness is insufficient to test God’s creative omnipotence.

Neither of these observations mean that God isn’t omnipotent; quite the contrary, they simply mean that God’s ability to create or manipulate objects is limited only by the nature of the universe itself – a limit set by God in creation – and not by God’s power. Round triangles are incapable of being created because such would contradict the very meaning of “triangularity.” God can still move infinitely massive rocks, and hence mass is insufficient to test the limits of God’s manipulative power. In both cases, these limits are imposed not by any inherent inability in God’s being but, rather, due to the self-limitation that God accepted in the creation of the universe.

This conclusion shouldn’t really be much of a surprise to anyone. Most Christians believe that God wants humans to be free to respond to the divine offer of love and a relationship; God doesn’t desire robotic obedience, but freely-given faith. Indeed, God so highly prized the freedom which faith requires that God was willing to risk the very real possibility of the abuse of that freedom – an abuse that we usually call “sin.” God was willing to accept the limitations that this freedom, by its very nature, imposed upon God’s Will. God would rather that all humans accept the offer of love, but God will not force humans to accept God’s love; love must be freely given for it to be love; faith must be freely exercised for it to be faith.

This idea of God’s self-limitation is one which we are used to accepting. We understand that God does not do everything that God could do, and that God’s not doing such doesn’t mean that God isn’t omnipotent. Omnipotence does not place an obligation upon God to act; rather, it establishes the opportunity for God to be free to allow us to act. It is true that God could still circumvent our freedom and force us to obey the Divine Will. But to do so would, in effect, cancel out God’s desire for a true, meaningful relationship with us. In order to receive faith and love, God was willing to sacrifice not only potential omnipotence, but also the Second Person of the Holy Trinity – Jesus Christ, Himself.

God’s self-limitation when it comes to the ability to do contradictory things is not, in and of itself, destructive of God’s omnipotence. Rather, it reflects God’s desire to establish a universe that obeys rational laws within which humans have the freedom to respond to the offer of a relationship with Jesus Christ. God so prized this relationship with us that Jesus died to make it possible in yet another example of self-giving, self-limiting love.

These several examples of God’s self-limitation are all manifestations of God’s omnipotence. If nothing else, the ultimate expression of all-power is all-love … the love that Jesus expressed for us in dying for our sins on the Cross; the ultimate expression of omnipotence is the willing self-limitation of all-power so as to make room for freedom, faith, and love. As Christians, we proclaim that God desires a freely lived relationship with us, one which is exemplified by a faith on our part that so trusts in God’s love that we are willing to sacrifice our freedom to God’s will. And, in so sacrificing our freedom, we are made truly free.

And this is the most incredible thing of all! This omnipotent creator, who is capable of doing everything, decided to limit divine power through fashioning the universe, asserting laws and processes of evolutionary development that eventually resulted in stars, planets, life, and humans, and then desires a relationship with those very humans! Amazing! We, who are physically so very insignificant in the grand scheme of things, are actually of ultimate significance to God.

Omnipotence isn’t just some vague, fuzzy concept that theologians like to kick around. It is, in a very real sense, the rock-bed essence of God’s freedom – and ours – to live in a relationship of faith and love. We can come to know God, and God’s Will for our lives, because God was willing limit omnipotence and enable our freedom of choice. And we, truly, are blessed to experience a hint of that omnipotent love of God by accepting, by faith, the Will of God.

Questions for Reflection

¨       Which is more important: the idea that God can do anything God wants to do, or the idea that God can do anything? There is a difference.

 

¨       Is God’s power limited by God’s love?

¨       Considering the scope of creation, how do you feel when you realize that the creator cares about, and loves, you?

¨       List all of the amazing acts of God’s omnipotence that you see around you right now. Right next to this list, make another one detailing all your cares and concerns.

 

¨       Considering all the wonders of God’s omnipotence which you see around you right now, how difficult do you think your list of concerns are for God to handle?

¨       When you are alone and search for people to guide you, do you find just the right help, as if sent by God?


Prayer: God of power and love, I thank you that you freely limited yourself so that there might be room in your universe for me to learn to freely  love you and live by faith. Amen.


[1] … and if that’s not a tautology, I’ll eat my hat.

[2] Exodus 3:13-14

[3] In some respects, they are correct – but logic has only rarely been thought of as a constraint on Christian Theology! Just look at the Doctrine of the Holy Trinity! Is it logical?  No. Is it true? Yes. The orthodox affirmation of the Church is that it God is Three-In-One, a concept which I accept it as an article of faith.

[4] That’s hard to do!

[5] Such reasoning is a classical example of the “assumptive fallacy” in logic. To put it succinctly: the Christian God is not universally described as being omnipotent – Process Theologians do not make such a claim – and even if such were true, omnipotence is not the ability to do everything; it is not raw power. It is God’s ability to do that which God wants to do, beginning with existence.

[6] I understand that this is something of an ontological argument for the existence of God, similar to that posed by St. Anselm. Indeed, it has some of the same problems as Anselm’s argument. However, when dealing with the question of God’s existence as a hypothetical postulate, even an atheist should be able to accept that one’s definition of God’s ontology should not be shifted around so as to make arguments against the Divine existence possible. A postulated existence for God, and the characteristics of that existence, nominally includes existence. For God to kill Godself would, hence, be a violation of that nature.

[7] Yes, this is another ontological argument. Again, it demands that the nature of an item be dealt with consistently, and all other factors be maintained as true. In and of itself, the argument is consistent. And, the cool thing is that it works.

[8] As if God has fingers!  This alteration of the question told me far more about the atheist presenting it than it did about God … for all of his intellectual acumen, he was operating with an anthropomorphic concept of God!

Neal, Gregory S. Seeking the Shepherd's Arms. Kearney: Koinonia Press, 2001. pp. 117-124

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