I have a theory that somewhere out there in this weird, wide world, there exists a laboratory, staffed entirely by atheists, the sole purpose of which is to churn out hard questions for Christians. In the January 2013 issue of Reformed Perspective, Jon Dykstra commented on one such popular riddle:
“If God is omnipotent, if He is all powerful, can He create a rock so heavy that He can’t lift it?”
Jon persuasively argued that in asking this question, the atheist misunderstands what we are saying about God’s character. There are many things, such as lying, that God cannot do, not because He is lacking in any way, but because such a proposition would violate His nature. Making a rock too heavy for Him to lift would fit into this category.
In addition to the character violation argument, I want to come at the question from another angle, giving another reason why the riddle falls flat.
Taxes to Caesar?
The question is a bit like one of the conundrums the Pharisees put to Jesus (Matt. 22:15-22). Answer yes and we’ve got you; answer no and we’ve got you still.
Can God make a rock so heavy He cannot lift it? Answer with a no, and God apparently disappears in a puff of His own powerlessness; answer with a yes, and again He goes up in a wisp of anti-omnipotence. Difficult conundrum though it may be, it should be borne in mind that it does come directly from the minds of those who believe we got a Universe out of nothing. That ought to tell us something!
So what is the answer to the rock question? Well, the simple answer is no, He cannot create something so heavy He cannot lift it. So that’s the end of God, isn’t it? Atheists 1 – Christians 0.
Impossible to give 110%
Well not quite. In fact, rightly understood the question actually turns back on itself and becomes a wonderful apologetic for the omnipotence of God. How so?
There is a basic problem with the question itself and that basic problem is logic. Or more accurately, the total lack of it. It is perhaps not as easy to see this with the attribute of omnipotence as it is with some of God’s other characteristics, so let’s begin by rephrasing the riddle using another of God’s traits, His infiniteness: “If God is infinite, if He is unlimited, can He use His boundlessness to create something more infinite than Himself?”
Now the problem with this is not very hard to see. Infinity is, by definition, infinite, and so there cannot possibly be anything greater than it. Therefore, if God is infinite, the reason He cannot create something more unlimited than Himself is because:
- Infinity by definition cannot be surpassed.
- He Himself is that infinity.
In other words, it is impossible for Him to create something more infinite than Himself, not because He is not infinite, but rather because He is.
Now plug the same logic back into the original riddle: “If God is omnipotent, if He is all powerful, can He create a rock so heavy that He can’t lift it?” The problem with the question is that it is loaded with the assumption that omnipotence can somehow be surpassed. But just as infiniteness cannot, by definition, be surpassed, nor can omnipotence. It is All-powerful. Not just 90% powerful with a bit of leeway to allow something 91% powerful. It is 100% powerful. That’s what omnipotence is.
So the reason the omnipotent God cannot create something that defies his omnipotence is because:
- Omnipotence by definition cannot be surpassed
- He Himself is that omnipotence.
In other words, God cannot create something too heavy for Himself to lift, not because He is not omnipotent, but rather because He is.
Look at it another way. If a being is able to create something bigger or stronger than itself, what does that tell you about it? Simply that the being in question cannot possibly be omnipotent, since the thing created is greater than itself. Therefore, the idea of the All-Powerful creating something that trumps All-Power is a total contradiction in terms.
But does it follow that this inability of the omnipotent God to create something greater than Himself implies limitedness? Well, it’s a bit like asking whether a genius can create a work of greater genius than himself, and if the answer is no, maintaining that this disproves his genius. Could J.S. Bach or Michelangelo have created works greater than themselves? Clearly this is impossible, but wouldn’t it be foolish for us to then use this impossibility to cast doubts on their genius?
So the heavy rock riddle, which apparently refutes the idea of God’s omnipotence, instead ends up establishing it rather neatly. Which other being, besides the omnipotent God, would be unable to make something too heavy for itself to lift?
Foolishness to the Greeks
But I have my own “omnipotence riddle” for atheists. Just as the heavy rock riddle assumes the idea of God’s omnipotence in order to then ridicule the concept, I would like to assume the idea God’s omnipotence, but this time in order to establish it. Their question is all about big things, but mine is more concerned with somewhat smaller things. So here goes: “If God is omnipotent, can He make Himself small enough to fit into a womb so that He can become the Saviour of World?”
Now the atheist, along with the gnostic and the liberal theologian, would like to say no. The incarnation is impossible, unthinkable and absurd. Well if God is not omnipotent then they are right. Such a proposition would be barking mad. But what if there is an omnipotent God? Would the virgin conception, the resurrection and the ascension be feasible then? Could an omnipotent, Trinitarian God accomplish that? Or would such things be too hard for even omnipotence to overcome? The question answers itself.
This is why the wisdom of the world will never understand the wisdom of God. The unbelieving mind seeks to disprove the omnipotence of God by asking hard riddles, even ones that propose the illogical and absurd idea of omnipotence trumping itself. Yet God has shown His omnipotence to the world already – not by making rocks too heavy for Himself to lift, but by becoming a baby, then a boy, then a man, all so that the world might be saved through Him. This is a riddle that only omnipotence could accomplish.
Rob Slane is the author of “A Christian and an Unbeliever discuss…” and this article first appeared in the April 2013 issue. For another take on this same question, Tim Barnett gives it a go below.