Letters to an Atheist.

1: The Omnipotence Paradox


Exactly four years ago, I met up with the son of an old friend. Edward was interested in philosophy and had been influenced by the "New Atheists", Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and, in particular, Sam Harris. He wanted to meet up, he said, to discuss philosophy but, in reality, he wanted to flex his atheist muscles. At the end of our five-hour discussion and having consumed a lot of coffee, he challenged me to read Sam Harris' The Moral Landscape and respond to it. I challenged Edward to present an atheistic answer to the empty tomb of Jesus. We agreed to keep in contact and a few days later I received a brief email from Edward in which he asked if God could create a situation he couldn't control.

If God couldn't do that, said Edwards, he wasn't almighty. But if God could produce a situation that was out of his control, that also proved he wasn't omipotent. I don't know whether Edward's question was original or if he was being serious but I felt the question needed to be answered. This is what I wrote. 

Dear Edward,

Thanks for being patient while awaiting my answer to the apparent logical paradox of omnipotence. The last few days have been really hectic and tomorrow I have to go to Yorkshire, so if I don’t answer you now it will be another week before I’ll have time to put fingers to keyboard.

I must admit that your apparent paradox was new to me. I’ve always heard it as, ‘Can God create a rock too heavy for him to lift?’ The way you express it is basically the same but the nuance is interesting and I didn’t want to simply rush off a half-baked response.

As I pointed out when we met last week, my reference point for all truth is the Bible. I get the impression that when you speak of "God", you have an image in your head of someone like Zeus or one the other Greek/Roman gods. When I refer to "God" I’m talking about is the Infinite – Personal God of the Old and New Testaments. The question I'm addressing then, is could the God revealed in the Bible create a situation he can't control?

Since the universe can only exist because the God of the Bible ‘upholds all things [from the largest stars to the smallest sub-atomic particles] by the word of his power’ (Hebrews 1:3), as far as the Bible is concerned, the question is meaningless. Any deity who can create the universe from nothing, establish the laws of physics, produce life from non-life and remain in absolute control of all time, space, matter and energy qualities as omnipotent.

Your question is clever but, I think, too clever. It collapses under the weight of its own cleverness. If, for the sake of the argument, God created a situation that was out his control, not only would he then be – in the mind of the formulator of the apparent paradox – rendered impotent by his own omnipotence but also, in order for the situation to be completely beyond his power to control, he would have to forego his omniscience, his exhaustive knowledge of all things past, present and future.

Furthermore, in order for the situation to be truly out of control. God would have to cease controlling the universe so that nothing could in any way influence or hinder the uncontrolled situation. Hence the almighty Creator must close his eyes, take his hands off the wheel and allow the Universe to collapse into chaos.
Omnipotence, however, is not an isolated attribute of the God of the Bible. ‘God is love’ (I John 4:8) and to abandon his Creation to chance would mean God would cease to love his Creation. There is more at stake in yourvquestion than the issue of raw power. You are actually asking if God could cease to be God.

The question is rigged so that, whatever the answer, God can't be all powerful. Any question that can eat its cake and have it too has to be flawed. It’s like asking a man if he has stopped beating his wife with a straight Yes or No!

Some of the Greek philosophers  were able to prove the impossibility of ever closing a door since the door must move through an infinite series of points before it can be shut. Aristotle, in Physics 6:9, proves that "In a race, the quickest runner can never overtake the slowest, since the pursuer must first reach the point whence the pursued started, so that the slower must always hold a lead."

Zeno illustrates the same paradox in the form of a race between the Greek hero Achilles and a tortoise, Achilles allows the tortoise a head start of 100 yards. If we suppose that each racer starts running at a constant speed (one very fast and the other very slow), then after some finite time, Achilles will have run 100 yards, bringing him to the tortoise's starting point. During this time, the tortoise has run a much shorter distance, say, ten yards. It will then take Achilles some further time to run that distance, by which time the tortoise will have advanced farther; and then more time still to reach this third point, while the tortoise moves ahead. Thus, whenever Achilles reaches somewhere the tortoise has been, he still has farther to go. Therefore, because there are an infinite number of points Achilles must reach where the tortoise has already been, he can never overtake the tortoise.

Put like that, the apparent paradox is plausible but in reality we know that Achilles will overtake the tortoise in a matter of seconds. And although we can devise paradoxes relating to omnipotence, the universe exists and continues to exist due to divine power.

Nevertheless, there are paradoxes in the Bible. For example, although the Bible says all things are possible with God (Matthew 19:26), the Bible also says it is impossible for God to lie (Hebrews 6:18).

1 Corinthians 14:23 in the Bible says God is not ‘the author of confusion.’ He has established the law of non-contradiction, expressed in the basic philosophical premise, ‘A’ cannot be ‘non-A.’ God, who is not the author confusion, cannot be both Omnipotent and yet non-Omnipotent. He cannot simultaneously have ability and non-ability. If he were to create a self-contradictory situation in which the exercise of his power rendered him powerless, he would be the author of confusion.

If the omnipotent God can create a logically absurd situation of creating a situation beyond his control why could not that same God perform other absurd circus tricks such as creating a cube with five sides, or a square circle, or a female man?

Wgat I'm saying is that the paradox is nothing more than a word game. It is an attempt to circumvent fundamental philosophical and theological questions: Why is there Something rather than Nothing? What is Truth? What is Right and Wrong? What is the purpose of life?

Nevertheless, there is a passage in the Bible that is not totally unrelated to this issue. And it’s a passage that is particularly relevant at this season of the year. I’m just going to quote it and let it speak for itself. It’s from the second chapter of the Letter to the Philippians. I consider it to be one of the most profound passages in the Bible.

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, 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 hope you and the family have a wonderful Christmas and I look forward to continuing our correspondence.


29 Crow Road, Partick,

Glasgow, G11 7RT.