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Is God’s Omnipotence Self-Refuting?

Giant Rock

The University of Cambridge has a series called Investigating Atheism, which calmly and fairly lays out the most popular arguments for atheism. One of the arguments had a twist I'd never heard before, so I thought I'd go ahead and respond to it:

Another traditional argument claims that there is a logical incoherence involved in certain concepts of God. This can either rely on an internal contradiction in a single attribute, or else in a contradiction in the combination of divine attributes. The first is best known in the question 'can God create a rock so heavy that He can't lift it', and the second includes problems with whether an omniscient God can make free decisions.

(1) As to the argument, "Can God create a rock so heavy that He can't lift it?" I think Philippians 2:5-11 says "yes":

Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus, Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross. Because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

I find this answer very intellectually satisfying. God the Son created the universe (John 1:3), yet in the Incarnation, emptied Himself in a radical way that we don't understand, taking on a mortal Human Nature - a body capable of suffering and dying. The God Who wants for nothing of His own nature felt hunger, pain, weariness, and the like - He became "like us in all things but sin." So in His Divine nature, He created the universe, including things His Human nature couldn't lift.

(2) As to whether and how an omniscient God can make free decisions, yes. But His free decisions aren't made within time. There are many cases where God, without violating His own Goodness, could do one of multiple options. He chooses a single one. St. Thomas Aquinas answered this question beautifully in the Summa Theologia, using Matthew 26:53 to show that God could have done what He did not.

This boggles the mind (for the same reason that predestination boggles the mind, since it seems to eliminate free will). But St. Augustine answered this in the 4th century - a God who created time and exists outside of it is bigger than these silly arguments. Note that God's description of Himself is pure Being: "I AM WHO AM." While we proclaim the glory of God the Trinity "as it was in the beginning, is now, and always shall be" in the Glory Be, from God's perspective, it's the eternal present. That's why Christ uses such a strange tense in John 8:58. Moses grasps this point well, as Psalm 90:2 reflects -- but then, he's the one God revealed it to (Exodus 3:14).

(3) A related argument:

Patrick Grim has argued that God's omnipotence and omniscience are both internally contradictory, as well as facing problems when combined with each other and further attributes. His primary argument relies on the view that certain tasks are 'essential indexicals', where the ability to complete such a task cannot be separated from self-reference. These follow from obvious and popular cases such as the rock mentioned above, and include statements like 'A snowflake falls through no effort of an omnipotent being'. This case is chosen as something that a non-omnipotent being can bring about, but not an omnipotent one.

The question of whether God can cause a snowflake to fall without the effort of an omnipotent Being is really asking, "Can God cause something without God causing it?" The question is meaningless and self-contradictory. More than that, it's been answered centuries before Patrick Grim was born. Again, from St. Thomas Aquinas:

Now nothing is opposed to the idea of being except non-being. Therefore, that which implies being and non-being at the same time is repugnant to the idea of an absolutely possible thing, within the scope of the divine omnipotence. For such cannot come under the divine omnipotence, not because of any defect in the power of God, but because it has not the nature of a feasible or possible thing. Therefore, everything that does not imply a contradiction in terms, is numbered amongst those possible things, in respect of which God is called omnipotent: whereas whatever implies contradiction does not come within the scope of divine omnipotence, because it cannot have the aspect of possibility. Hence it is better to say that such things cannot be done, than that God cannot do them. Nor is this contrary to the word of the angel, saying: "No word shall be impossible with God." For whatever implies a contradiction cannot be a word, because no intellect can possibly conceive such a thing.

Catholics readily affirm that omnipotence is bounded by logical coherence, calling Christ the Divine Logos. So we'll gladly affirm that God can't do x without doing x. But that's not because of any limits on God's power, but because that's a meaningless statement. Even if you hypothesized the creation of alternate worlds, one in which God does x, and one in which He doesn't, He's still doing x in one of the worlds. So atheists haven't disproved God. They've just run headlong into the Law of Identity and the principle of contradiction.

So it isn't that God is somehow less than omnipotent, but simply that the question is logically impossible. Now, Grim attempts to get around this with the self-refuting argument that man can cause snowflakes to fall without Divine assistance, so there's something we can do that God can't. There are two responses. First, he's fundamentally wrong. Given the nature of God's omnipotence, all things have, as secondary causation at the very least, God's Permission. If God does not actively Will it, He passively Permits it, which still makes the doing of the action contingent upon the Divine Being. Atheists know this - it's why they blame the sins of man on God. We have free will because God permits us to have free will. So even when we sin, we could not do so without an omnipotent Being, God, permitting us to have the freedom to do so. The very nature of God's omnipotence requires that nothing can occur which He could not stop from occurring. So for Grim to assume, a priori, that a man (we'll call him Carl) can do anything without God's assistance, is to start out assuming that God is not omnipotent, in order to prove that God is not omnipotent. If God is omnipotent, then the idea that Carl can make a snowflake fall without God's assistance is logically impossible, and Grim's argument fails. So this is a disproof of God's omnipotence only if God isn't omnipotent... which is to say, it's a lousy disproof.

Secondly, what Grim is proposing isn't even a parallel argument. He's uses something he thinks is logically possible (Carl doing something, and God not doing it) to try and show we've got a power God doesn't... but the power he's contrasting it with is the power to do the logically impossible. Can A do x without A doing x? No. Can A do x without B doing x? Perhaps (although in this case, no, as I explained in the first answer).

Those are three of the arguments which seem, on face, to be strong against God's omnipotence. None of them are, on examination. I welcome comments, rejoinders, and other vexing theological questions.
Originally posted at Shameless Popery. Used with permission.
(Image credit: Giant Rock Movie)

Joe Heschmeyer

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Until May 2012, Joe Heschmeyer was an attorney in Washington, D.C., specializing in litigation. These days, he is a seminarian for the Archdiocese of Kansas City, Kansas, and can use all the prayers he can get. Follow Joe through his blog, Shameless Popery or contact him at joseph.heschmeyer@gmail.com.

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  • NoahLuck

    It's always a bad idea to try to win an argument by definition. Too many of my fellow atheists assume definitions like these:

    Divine omniscience: "For all sequences of words X, God knows X."
    Divine omnipotence: "For all sequences of words X, God can do X."

    Unsurprisingly, those definitions suffer all manner of logical problems.

    When I was Catholic, and so now still, I argue that we can choose much better definitions:

    Divine omniscience: "God knows all truths and sees all things."
    Divine omnipotence: "God has the power to realize any possibility."

    Then we can get on to the meat of discussing whether we have sufficient evidence to suppose any such God exists.

    • QuanKong

      The logic here is flawed. In the first place, who attributes the quality of omniscience and omnipotence to God? By so doing, one has defined God! That being the case why go on further defining omniscience and omnipotence? Thus NoahLuck contradicts and affirms his own statement: "It's always a bad idea to try to win an argument by definition."

      • In this case, to define something is not to assign it any value. The mathematical symbol infinity has no value, and yet is defined as "everything." In this way, we can define God as omniscient, omnipotent, and even omnipresent.

        • BTW, the lazy-eight kind of infinity is usually defined as an unbounded limit.

          But more importantly, I think it's especially important to avoid defining "God" too narrowly or too expansively in these discussions. Then we might start using our definitions to tell theists that they're really atheists or atheists that they're really theists, and that would just be picking a fight rather than resolving one.

          If I may suggest, I would say that the definition of "God" that is relevant for Catholics is from the Apostle's Creed:

          "Creator of heaven and earth"

          That has the advantage of letting us talk separately about the questions "Does God exist?" and "How may we best describe God's properties?".

          • Catholics generally use the Nicene Creed over the Apostle's Creed, as we recite the former during Mass. There, he is also referred to as "Creator of Heaven and Earth," but also as the Father Almighty, Light, and of course there are numerous references to the Trinity.
            Sorry if this is nit-picky, but I hope that this gives a slightly more structured idea of God without being too constricting.
            Ideally, this may even begin answering your question "How may we best describe God's properties?"

          • FWIW, a large fraction of the Catholic parishes I attended used the Apostle's Creed rather than the Nicene. But I don't think the differences are important in our context here.

            The only phrases used appositionally for "God" in the two Creeds are "Father Almighty", "Creator of heaven and earth", "the Father", "the Almighty", and "maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible". I omitted the Father Almighty part from my original suggested definition, but I would not be opposed to adding them in if you prefer. If we do add them, then I would strongly urge using the Eastern Churches' preferred opinion on how to understand "Father" (his person identical to the divine nature), however, because if we instead require the Western Church's preferred opinion on how to understand "Father" (his person defined by Trinitarian relationships), then we would be forced by that definition to conclude that Muslims (because they are unitarians) are atheists, which would be absurd.

      • It seems to me that you're expecting a different argument than the one I made. I don't say we should avoid definitions. I say we should avoid trying to win arguments by our choice of definitions. There are often many different sets of definitions that could capture the same intuitions. So instead, we do better to choose definitions that leave the arguments open for exploration of the relevant intuitions by reason and evidence.

        • QuanKong

          By defining a subject or object, we set the parameters be they for discussion, argument, debate, etc. However, if definitions
          are made for the purpose of winning an argument, that is really
          So, it is not just a bad idea as you said. It is no better than hitting below the belt and is totally insincere.

          The point I was trying to make is: how do we know the attributes of God? Are these attributes mental constructs? Or are they real by universal experience and not personal experience!

  • From the Jainist philosophy of Acharya Jinasena, 9th century, Mahapurana (महापुराण) 4.16-31: If God is ever perfect and complete, how could the will to create have arisen in him? If, on the other hand, he is not perfect, he could no more create the universe than a potter could. How can an immaterial god create that which is material?

    • The answer would be love. Love is something that is not diminished in the giving, but multiplied with every transaction. The will to create stems from a being that is Love itself.

      Under any other circumstances, I would accept your postulation.

      • The way you put your answer doesn't work. If God's love is increased by the act of creation, then God would have been diminished by not creating. A successful orthodox theist explanation would be subject to the traditional doctrines: God must have exactly the same perfections whether he did or did not create, and his act of creation must be wholly free, not even determined by a necessity interior to his nature.

        • I agree that the basic argument in Epicus' statement is true: God creates out of Love. I also agree with Noah in that the Creation was not God's way of achieving further perfection, for it is impossible for perfection to become MORE perfect. Rather, all of Creation is a manifestation of God's Love. He loves Love so much that he would create us to share in his divine Love. Again, not out of necessity, but in charity, and especially in love.

        • I didn't mean to say that God "gained" by Loving, merely that the sum total of Love in the existence grew, and did not leave God. Inasmuch as you can talk about love as a quantifiable thing.

      • Except that we actually know a good deal more today about love than people in the past and it points to love being material action, I discuss this more here: http://iconoclasm2000.blogspot.com/2013/03/where-do-you-find-love-in-brain.html

        • So because love can be observed to be a physical response to certain triggers, that necessitates that that's all it is?

          Transcendent by it's very definition means that it's unobservable and ineffable.

          There's love the emotion, and then there's Love, the abstract aspect of Love that shares in the same nature as Justice, Good, Beauty, etc.

          • Where in the example of the falling dominoes does the magic addition fairy come sprinkle the magical 'transcendent' addition dust to make the addition happen?

            When the observations are accounted for and there is NO EVIDENCE requiring an appeal to other entities, the rational response is to stop and don't make up additional, unnecessary elements.

            You invented a whole host of things and you've even built into your invention this assertion that it is 'unobservable' - how convenient! This is just like my transcendent invisible pink unicorns that fart universes into existence - you can't observe them but clearly they are necessary for universes to exist (how else do you explain hydrogen sulfide!?!). And because they are unobservable, therefore OF COURSE they exist! (I feel dirty even saying that sarcastically)

            Your approach to understanding reality reduces to absurd assertions and question begging, therefore I reject it as unsound both logically and epistemically.

          • See, now your response would've made sense if you hadn't ignored half of what I said.

            What hormone stimulates a feeling of love in friendship? Love for people who you don't want to reproduce with? Love of country, which is that? For that matter, what hormone stimulates a love of God?

            You're talking eros, one kind of love, and it's Bush League for you to act like that's all there is, and you know it. I mentioned the abstract of Love. Like Justice, associated with which hormone/chemical? Beauty? Goodness?

            There are things that are bigger than your mind out there, and you hate that.

          • Longshanks

            "and you hate that."

            Whether or not it is in response to a negative, sarcastic comment doesn't make this less ad hominem.

            His phrasing may be off, but the point stands "the rational response is to stop and don't make up additional, unnecessary elements."

            Platonic abstracts are certainly one way of looking at the world, but they seem to be becoming more unnecessary the more we learn about the links between the physics chemistry, biology and psychology of our central nervous systems.

            Love, Justice, Beauty, Goodness are all shorthand uppercase words which retain much of the usefulness they had when first propounded.

            I imagine that Newtonian physics works for most of us posting here, most of the time...the fact that it DOES doesn't mean that it's the final word on physics, nor the most complete.

            The fact that we CAN talk about capital L Love and B Beauty as abstracts doesn't mean that they exist as fully real, independent capital O Objects any more than talking about T Time helps us understand time's warp and weft down below the Planck limit or G Gravity helps us understand the nature of the Higgs mechanism.

            Concepts can have varying degrees of relevance or correctness at different scales, we have painfully and fruitfully learned, and I feel confident talking about abstract Love while acknowledging the biological foundations of love.

            Your examples of patriotism, agape, theophily as contrasted with *currently* studied erotic hormones do little to help your cause.

            I can easily imagine biological systems of tribalism, mutual aid, and shared cultural understandings/desire to be protected/placebo benefit from believing in immortality/dealing with ideas of absolutes as being plausible steps to the biological release of endorphins when running those bits of software: patriotism, agape, theophily.

            You're boxing yourself into a realm of ignorance that science will, it seems likely, continue to encroach upon.

          • Dark Star - Please review the "Commenting Rules and Tips" and try to keep the dialogue free of flippant sarcasm. We understand these are passionate issues but we're aiming for charitable discussion from both sides. Thanks!

          • It wasn't intended as sarcasm but I can see it seeming that way. I welcome your advice on rephrasing it with better clarity.

  • So basically, the definition of 'omnipotence' here seems to be that of an infinite set within another infinite set?

    • If by that you mean infinite possibilities for an infinite amount of situations, then I guess so.

  • Longshanks

    "Patrick Grim has argued that God's omnipotence and omniscience are both internally contradictory"

    "whatever implies contradiction does not come within the scope of divine omnipotence"


    You face the challenge that your idea of God is not contradictory by saying that if something is contradictory it is not God.

    I mean, that's one way of winning an argument.

    Me: I hold that X.
    You: No, but it can't be X, because X doesn't make sense.
    Me: The definition of X is that it makes sense, so if it doesn't it's not X. So X.
    You: Oh, now I see. May is tautology month.

    • Michael Murray

      LOL in the RCC every month is tautology month.

  • CuriousAnonymous

    Well, since by definition God is an omnipotent, self causal being it seems reasonable to say that God is not confined by the laws of logic, since logic is tied to our universe and to the concept of existence which God created. This must imply that God can do the logically "impossible". This also means that he also cannot do the logically "impossible", and other similar contradictions. I know the argument itself sounds meaningless and self contradictory, but I prefer the idea of God as a logical "singularity" rather than an "omnipotent" being limited by laws which the being itself created. I'm very curious about this subject and the idea of logic and truth. So any viewpoints on this are most welcome along with recommended reading material.

    • Luke Meyer

      While God is not confined by our logic, that is not to say that he is completely beyond the grasp of logic. Otherwise, the work of St. Thomas Aquinas was all in vain.

  • primenumbers

    "(2) As to whether and how an omniscient God can make free decisions, yes. But His free decisions aren't made within time. " - a decision not made in time is a decision that is not made. Time is essential for thought and decisions and being. To deny God exists in time is equivalent to deny God exists in any meaningful way of using the word "exists".

    Even then God cannot have free will as theists tell us that free will is given by an external being, an external being that does not exist in the case of God. God only acts good, and with total knowledge and perfection attributes, free will is curtailed to the point where there can only ever be one right answer to any decision, hence zero free will for God.