Omnipotence, Part 2

By: Dr. Gregory S. Neal

In Omnipotence, Part 1 I asked a difficult, very probing question. It was a question intended to get the brain juices flowing. It was a question that is somewhat speculative, true, but it is also well situated within the philosophical and theological history of the Church. And, as has been frequently true when I have asked difficult, probing questions, it has elicited a very fascinating array of responses.

I asked:

"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."

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 omnipotence. 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 omnipotence.

The problem with this question is, as I said, that it pits God's omnipotence against itself. It is a sophistic attempt to invalidate the omnipotence of God by forcing God's power to cancel itself out while limiting that very power, which is supposed to be infinite, to the finite limitations of the physical universe. It is very similar to the question: "Can God make triangles that are round?" If God cannot make triangles that are round, the atheists say, then God isn't omnipotent. When it is pointed out to them that, by their nature triangles are not round, atheists generally throw a fit and claim that this observation is irrelevant: "If God can't make round triangles, then God can't do everything!" Their claim is, itself, illogical. Demanding that God work logical nonsense, and then judging God to not be omnipotent because God doesn't (or "can't") work such, is, itself, illogical.

There is an answer to the question, however. For a rock to be so big 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 must 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.

Objections to my answer have be 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. It is huge — far beyond our ability to conceive — but it is not infinite. If you could travel far enough and long enough in one direction, you would end up back where you started because the universe is a closed system. Hence, the universe is finite and, hence, could (at least theoretically) be completely filled.

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 asking about mass. Could God make a rock so massive/heavy that God 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 in an attempt to claim "if God can't make a rock so massive that God cannot move it, then God is not omnipotent." This question and conclusion 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. An atheist shouts "that means that God is not omnipotent, because God cannot make a rock so massive 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 omnipotence. The same is true for any other hypothetical attribute that the rock may have. The only way that a rock could be created in such a way that God could not move it would be for that rock to be so large as to fill the entire universe and, thus, leave no place for it to be moved to.

© 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.