Omnipotence, Part 1

By: Dr. Gregory S. Neal

"Why is God God?" Have you ever thought about that, or asked yourself that question? Have you ever asked yourself: "Why is God God? And, why isn't somebody or something else God?" What makes God God?

Theologians like to make up big, long words to describe a often quite simple, straightforward 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 anything that God wants to do. That's what omnipotence is: "all power," or the "ability to do anything that one wants to do." It is this characteristic — the ability to do whatever God wants to do — that makes God God. I Praise God that God is all loving, all forgiving, all accepting; but these characteristics of God's nature , while wonderful and important, but is the fact that God is all powerful that makes God God.

Atheists love to attack this conception of God because they believe there is a logical flaw in it. One of the classic questions that is frequently 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 God can't move it? If God can't, then there's something that God cannot make. If God can, then there is something that God cannot move."

Think about that for a moment. It's a tricky question, because 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 all power. If, however, you're going to say "no, God cannot make a rock so big 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 all power.

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 which depends upon the finitude of the universe for the conditional boundries of God's omnipotence. It is designed to try and invalidate omnipotence altogether by forcing God to work physically contradictory acts at the same time, while limited by the conditions of the natural universe.

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?" If God cannot do any of these things, the atheists say, then God isn't omnipotent. However, anyone who thinks about these questions for a moment can see the flaw inherent in each. In the first one, God is asked to make round triangles ... except that triangles aren't, by their very nature, round. The demand that God make round triangles is a demand for God to work logical 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 — it's a square. So also with the third question: one of God's essential attributes is "being." God simply cannot not be. Hence, God — by pure definition of what it means to be God — cannot kill Godself. Each of these questions demands that God work pure nonsense; they demand that God produce or do something which violates the very nature of things. And the same is true with this question about God making a rock so big that God cannot move it.

There is an answer to the question … one that takes some thought. I'll leave you with it today and come back to it in my next article. Think about it; don't just dismiss it out of hand as being ridiculous or a "cop out," because neither is the case. See if this makes sense to you. We affirm that God can make a rock as large (or as massive) as God likes. We also affirm that God can move anything. Therefore, for a rock to be so large or so massive that God couldn't move it, there would have to be no place or time to move it to. In other words, by pure definition of omnipotence, the limitation present in this test must actually be located not in God's ability but in the nature of the universe. The universe is finite, hence a rock that filled it would leave no place for it to be moved to, hence meaning that the rock would be immobile.

© 2006 Dr. Gregory S. Neal
All Rights Reserved

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The Reverend Dr. Gregory S. Neal is the Senior Pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Commerce, Texas, and an ordained Elder in the North Texas Conference of The United Methodist Church. A graduate of Southern Methodist University, Duke University, and Trinity College, Dr. Neal is a scholar of Systematic Theology, New Testament origins, and Biblical Languages. His areas of specialization include the Theology of the Sacraments, in which he did his doctoral dissertation, and the formation and early transmission of the New Testament. Trained as a Christian educator, he has taught classes in these and related fields while also serving for more than 25 years as the pastor of United Methodist churches in North Texas.

As a popular teacher, preacher, and retreat leader, Dr. Neal is known for his ability to translate complex theological concepts into common, everyday terms. HIs preaching and teaching ministry is in demand around the world, and much of his work can be found on this website. He is the author of several books, including
Grace Upon Grace: Sacramental Theology and the Christian Life, which is in its second edition, and Seeking the Shepherd's Arms: Reflections from the Pastoral Side of Life, a work of devotional literature. Both of these books are currently available from Amazon.com.