Omnipotence Paradoxes


Every Sunday around the world Christians profess their faith in, “God the Father Almighty.” But does the concept of an all-powerful being really make sense?

The claim that God is all-powerful, or “omnipotent,” is the claim that God has unlimited power. While there is no obvious logical incoherence in the concept of omnipotence (the proposition, “There exists a being with unlimited power” does not involve an explicit contradiction in the way that, say, “John is a married bachelor” does) it is sometimes claimed by skeptics that it has paradoxical entailments.

The standard objection presents some action such that a limit is imposed upon God whether he performs it or not. Consider the question, “Can God create a stone too heavy for him to lift?” or, “Can God create a universe too wayward for him to control?” If God can create such a universe, to take the second example, then there is an action he cannot subsequently perform; namely, control it; and if he cannot create such a universe, then there is a different action that he cannot perform; namely, create it. Either way, the argument goes, there will be an action God cannot perform and so omnipotence is logically impossible.    

To see why this objection fails, we need to understand omnipotence in a more careful way. Theologians have always understood omnipotence to mean the power to perform any logically possible action. Thus to note that God could not create a square circle imposes no limit on his powers because creating a square circle is not an action whose difficulty lies in the brute force required to perform it. In fact, it is not an action at all; rather, the imperative Create a square circle is a logically incoherent combination of English words which have no referent in the set of all possible actions performable by an omnipotent being.    

This refinement de-fangs the objection completely. Stones so heavy that unlimited forces cannot lift them and Universes so wayward unlimited forces cannot control them both belong with square circles and married bachelors to a class of logically incoherent entities. The limitations in question are limitations, not of power, but of logical possibility. In a like case, the Bible teaches that God, being perfect, can do no evil and this “limitation” can be understood in the same sense as those just discussed. The phrase, “A morally perfect being who acts immorally,” describes a logically incoherent state of affairs—equivalent to, “A perfectly silent being who sobs loudly,” or, “An invincible being who is overthrown”: God cannot logically be expected to perform an action such that, if it is performed, that action has the entailment that God did not perform it. [1]

It may be that most Christians affirm belief in an omnipotent God on faith and scripture. Those of a more philosophical bent may appeal to a priori grounds—Plantinga’s Ontological Argument, for instance, or Swinburne’s argument for the parsimony of a First Cause unencumbered by limitations. [2] Still others may simply gaze into the vast and beautiful heavens at night and find it a perfectly reasonable property to impute to the creator. But on whatever grounds Christians affirm their belief in an Almighty God, rational reflection suggests that there are no indefeasible a priori objections to doing so.


[1] All paradoxes of this sort can be simplified to the question, “Can God abrogate his own omnipotence?” As Richard Swinburne notes in his discussion of omnipotence paradoxes, it is logically possible that the answer to this question is yes but God never chooses to do so. In this scenario, too, the paradox is circumvented: God, being omnipotent, can perform the proposed action but, in choosing not to, remains omnipotent.

[2] To postulate a limited force is to postulate two things: The force and whatever constrains it; while to postulate an unlimited force is to postulate one thing: The force, which, being unlimited, is not constrained by anything. “For this reason,” Swinburne says, “scientists have always favoured a hypothesis ascribing zero or infinite value to some entity over a hypothesis ascribing a finite value when both hypotheses are compatible with the data.” Thus, “the hypothesis that some particle has zero or infinite mass is simpler than the hypothesis that it has a mass of 0.3412 or a velocity of 301,000 kilometres per second.” And since a person having zero powers would not be a person at all, by postulating a person with infinite powers the theist is postulating the simplest person logically possible.

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