Things God Can’t Do

December 10, 2010 · Published in Philosophy, Theology  by Jonathan Garrison ·

You know the old quandary. Can God make a stone so heavy that even He can’t lift it? Either God’s not powerful enough to do one thing, or He’s not powerful enough to do the other. I’ve heard it asked many times, but not by anyone who really expected an answer. So let me give it to you straight. No, God cannot make a stone so heavy that even He can’t lift it. That’s right, I said it. There’s something God can’t do. But don’t be frightened. Let me explain, because there’s more where that came from.

By most people’s definition, God is the creator of all space, time, matter and energy; i.e., the universe. He is also a being of perfect goodness and moral perfection. Additionally, God is all-knowing, all-loving, perfectly just and, let’s not forget, all-powerful.

That’s a lot of superlatives for someone I just claimed couldn’t do something. So, what gives? When you consider God’s attributes — really think about them — it’s not long before you discover lots of things that God cannot do. And at first blush it’s tempting to think of these things as shortcomings, but this is not so in God’s case.

As the creator of all space, time, matter and energy, God is the first cause. As such, He is, Himself, uncaused. Therefore, God did not and cannot come into existence. He is not made. He is not the result of anything else. He cannot be unmade or destroyed. Not exactly shortcomings, eh? Yet they are still things He cannot do or be.

As a being of moral perfection, He cannot be evil. In a real sense, God is the very definition of goodness. Goodness has no meaning outside of God. Any objective moral values or duties we perceive are just extensions of God’s divine nature. Even most atheists agree with this, which is why the honest ones try to deny the existence of objective moral values and duties. God is perfectly trustworthy, so He cannot lie. As creator of everything, God already owns all property and all life, so it is not possible for God to steal or murder. All of these things are completely God-like, and all are things God cannot do or be.

As all-knowing, God cannot believe untruths. As all-loving, He cannot cease to love you (even as He despises your imperfections). To budge one iota in the area of justice would diminish God’s goodness. He, therefore, cannot tolerate that which is not in accordance with His ultimate will. Even as He permits human beings the free will to defy Him, it is only in accordance with His ultimate will, which comes to fruition through His divine providence. As Gandalf was quick to remind Frodo, “Do not be too eager to deal out death and judgment. Even the very wise cannot see all ends.”

Last, but not least, if the power to create and sustain all that exists is not all-powerful, I don’t know what is. But how does this mean that God can’t make a stone so heavy that even He can’t lift it? I just claimed that God is all-powerful.

All the things God can’t do, which I have described so far, involve God’s nature. As God is, by definition, the most excellent being, to act in any way contrary to His nature would be less than excellent; He would cease to be God.

There’s another attribute of God that I failed to mention, and which often gets overlooked. God is also perfectly rational. Reason and the logic that powers it are, like moral perfection, part of God’s essence. The value of logic in helping determine the truth of our reasoning is, like our perception of objective right and wrong, part of the essence of God; and the power to reason is, I believe, one of the ways in which we were created “in His image.”

As with the other aspects of God’s nature, God cannot behave in any way which is less than rational, in any way that is not in accordance with what we would call logical. We may not always see the underlying logic to God’s actions, but it is there, nonetheless. To talk about God creating a stone so heavy that even He can’t lift it is to talk about God doing something that even He cannot do. Can God do something He can’t do? No. This is logically incoherent. God cannot make a square circle or a married bachelor either, as all these things are not things. They are collections of words with contradictory meanings. You can say the words, but they refer to non-entities. The words taken together are irrational. So, of course, God cannot bring into existence that which is logically incoherent, because God cannot cease to be God.

It is often assumed that God could have made the universe any way He wanted to. I suppose this is true at some level, as His ultimate will is satisfied, but if humans are to have free will, to be able to freely deny God (as indeed we seem to be able to do), then God must have allowed — condescended to permit — actions which oppose His will. It might have been possible for God to create a universe in which all people freely choose to serve Him, or perhaps not. By giving us free will, God may have, knowingly and willingly, prevented Himself from creating such a universe. For it would be logically incoherent, and therefore impossible, for God to force anyone to freely choose Him. So, given free will, this may indeed be the best of all possible worlds God could have created.

Comments are closed.