The omnipotence of God: Can God create a stone so heavy that He cannot move it?

By John F. Baskette

That old objection to the doctrine of the omnipotence of God was raised recently on USENET in the newsgroup soc.religion.christian. USENET is an enormous collection of electronic discussion groups distributed as “network news” through a world wide computer network known as the internet. Many of you may not be familiar with computer networks and bulletin boards, and I won’t be explaining about them here, but I will say, the on-line debates in these newsgroups between atheists and believers of all types are quite lively and often informative.

The Christians in that newsgroup answered the objection very well. To speak of an almighty God creating an object that He cannot lift is to posit a logically contradictory state of affairs. It is a variation on the old question, “What happens when an immovable object (the stone) meets an irresistible force (God)?” The answer is that both an irresistible force and an immovable object cannot exist together in the same universe without creating a logical contradiction. If reason is valid then to speak of the two in the same sentence is to speak nonsense. Similarly, it is nonsense to speak of God creating a stone that he cannot lift.

Another equally valid answer offered in the newsgroup is that God cannot do anything whatsoever. God can only do what is logically possible.

These answers did not satisfy the objectors. Their retort was to accuse the Christians of equivocating. “You admit that there are things that God cannot do, therefore you are admitting that God is not really omnipotent! You have only proved the case against the self-contradictory and self-stultifying Christian conception of God.”

At this point I entered the fray to point out that the definition of omnipotence has never meant what the objectors say it meant. The historical understanding of omnipotence never meant that God can do anything whatsoever. The objection is at best a misunderstanding, and at worst, merely an intellectually dishonest straw man argument.

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My response did not go unchallenged. Here is what one poster (David) asked:

However, I gather from the discussions that, in spite of the logical contradictions involved, many people are arguing that god is omnipotent in the all-inclusive sense you wish to avoid.

Also, just how would you properly define this ‘historical sense’ of omnipotent? The paragraph above just says that it is not really omnipotence as defined in all the dictionaries. How, precisely, should it be defined?

Here was my response:

My earlier post pointed out that the historical sense of terms such as omnipotence were never construed to be an all-inclusive anything at all which, if true, renders mute the various objections to Christian teaching based on various logical paradoxes.

To demonstrate my point further and to answer David’s question, I will give various definitions of omnipotence as found in various theologians. First, however, I would like to point out that the Oxford English Dictionary (if not some of the less authoritative available dictionaries) does recognize a specifically Christian and theological use of the term.

Here are three definitions given in _The Compact Edition Of The Oxford English Dictionary, Complete Text Reproduced Micrographically, Volume I A-O_, Oxford University Press:

Omnipotent,

  1. Strictly said of God (or of a deity) or His attributes: Almighty or infinite in power.
  2. gen. All-powerful; having full or absolute power or authority; having unlimited or very great power, force, or influence; exceedingly strong or mighty. b. humourously. Capable of anything; unparalleled; utter, arrant; huge, ‘mighty’.
  3. absol. or as sb. An omnipotent being; spec. (with the) the Almighty God.

The first definition is the one used in Christian theology. It is not the same as “Capable of anything”.

Infinite should be thought of in terms of the primary dictionary definition of “subject to no limitation or external determination”. I’ll give an explanation of the Infinity of God from Berkhoff shortly, but in order to illuminate the concept of “Power”, I would like to first quote from _A Systematic Theology of the Christian Religion, Volume One_ by James Oliver Buswell, Jr., Ph. D.; a professor of Systematic Theology at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis. On pages 63-63 he explains omnipotence this way…

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Can God create a stone so heavy that He cannot move it?