What do we mean when we say that God is omnipotent? Can an omnipotent being exist?

Some time ago, an atheist friend (who subsequently became a Christian) presented me with a paradox that purportedly disproved God’s existence: “Could God create a stone so heavy that He could not lift it?” If God could, it seems that He would not be omnipotent; if God could not, it seems that He would also be omnipotent.

Some Christians attempt to resolve this paradox by arguing that God can do the impossible: construct square triangles, allow something to exist and not to exist at the same time, and create stones so heavy He Himself cannot lift them. God, in other words, is not bound by logic.

Why believe that God is not bound by logic? Perhaps Matthew 19:26 (cf. Mark 10:27), in which Jesus says, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” God is not bound by logic because God is not bound by anything.

Ignoring the fact that this picture of God is (quite literally) irrational – ignoring the fact, that is, that it is a picture of God operating beyond the realm of (human) reason – the idea that God is not bound by anything itself goes against the Bible. The Bible says that God “cannot disown Himself” (2 Timothy 2:13) and “cannot be tempted by evil” (James 1:13). According to the Bible, God cannot sin. God is bound by something – in this case, by morality or His own nature. This is not a bad thing; I do not want a God Who can sin.

When we see that God’s omnipotence, as understood in the Bible, does have limitations, our main reason for believing that God can violate logic disappears. In fact, as I argued in my response to my friend concerning the paradox of the stone, “[T]here is no reason to believe that the idea of omnipotence as espoused in scripture connotes the ability to violate logic.” Instead, omnipotence in the Bible concerns God’s dominion and sovereignty over creation.

In a way, that is all that there is to say on the matter. But I think the fact that so many Christians are willing to attribute irrationality to God is problematic, and I would like to reflect on that briefly now:

1. A moment’s reflection would let us see that a “no-holds-barred” omnipotence is dangerous. Can God make Himself cease to exist – or both exist and not exist at the same time? Can God create other omnipotent gods? Of course not – nor would we want Him to.

2. God cannot sin because God’s nature is fundamentally good. We understand this. What we don’t always understand is that God’s nature is fundamentally rational. Jesus after all, is the Λόγος (Logos) – God’s rational and creative principle. To say that God cannot construct square triangles, therefore, is not to limit God’s power, but to comprehend God’s nature.

3. In practice – in any other circumstance than when we are specifically asked about God’s omnipotence – we assume that God cannot violate the laws of logic. We argue, for example, that the Bible cannot contradict itself; in fact, Christian apologists spend a great deal of effort attempting to explain apparent biblical contradictions. We would never ascribe irrationality to God in concrete cases; we would never say, for instance, that God could send someone to Heaven while also sending that person to Hell. It is only in abstract cases involving square triangles that we even consider the possibility that God could violate logic. This, to me, indicates that belief that God could violate logic is not something that we apply consistently in our Christianity, but only a quick (and rather shoddy) response to questions about God’s omnipotence.

4. It is true that God’s ways are higher than our ways (Isaiah 55:9). But the fact remains that God is a God Who has sought out a relationship with mankind – Who has sought to be known by mankind. Indeed, “this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (John 17:3; emphasis added). In contrast, the God of Irrationality, unconstrained by logic, is fundamentally unknowable. Thus, he cannot be the Christian God.

I conclude with C.S. Lewis’ words in The Problem of Pain:

“His Omnipotence means power to do all that is intrinsically possible, not to do the intrinsically impossible. You may attribute miracles to him, but not nonsense. This is no limit to his power. If you choose to say ‘God can give a creature free will and at the same time withhold free will from it,’ you have not succeeded in saying anything about God: meaningless combinations of words do not suddenly acquire meaning simply because we prefix to them the two other words ‘God can.’ […] It is no more possible for God than for the weakest of his creatures to carry out both of two mutually exclusive alternatives; not because his power meets an obstacle, but because nonsense remains nonsense even when we talk it about God.”