Atheist Objection #3
Now, it’s time to sit up and pay attention because this objection is at least philosophically interesting. So here is the basic argument:
If there is anything God cannot do, then God is not all-powerful. God cannot lie. Therefore, God is not all-powerful.
To begin with, I take the minor premise in this argument to be beyond controversy. God, indeed, cannot lie. This means we can turn our attention to the major premise: If there is anything God cannot do, then God is not all-powerful. If this conditional premise turns out to be sound, and the second premise is also sound, then the conclusion of this argument is both valid and sound. If this turns out to be the case, Christianity has a legitimate problem on its hands. This is because Christianity affirms God to be all-powerful and if it turns out to be the case that God is not all powerful, then Christianity is wrong about the sort of God it has claimed for 2000 years now, exists. What is the best way to approach this argument? It seems to me that we have to ask two fundamental questions about the major premise.
The first question is what does anything mean? The second question is what does all-powerful mean. When Christian doctrine teaches that God’s power is unlimited, infinite, that it knows no boundaries, it is making a very specific claim. And if an atheistic objection to Christian belief is to be sustained, it has to object to the very thing that the belief is affirming. Otherwise, you have another straw man on your hands. The straw man maneuver falls under the fallacy of irrelevant thesis. Engel tells us it consists of imputing to one’s adversaries opinions a good deal more extreme than those they have set out and are willing to defend. [Engel, With Good Reason]
Based on the objection above, it seems that the term anything means literally anything. If there is anything that God cannot do, then he must not be all powerful. So if God cannot sin, he is not all powerful! If God cannot cause himself to cease to exist, he cannot be all powerful. If God cannot cause himself not to be all-powerful then he is not all powerful. How about this one; if God cannot be both all-powerful and not all-powerful in the same sense and at the same time, then he must not be all-powerful. So we immediately see a very serious logical problem with this objection already. The idea of anything seems to be crossing some very serious logical boundaries. We have what I call a category error on the horizon. Could a person be physically strong and morally weak? Does one’s physical strength have any bearing whatsoever on their character? Now, this is not intended to be analogous to God’s infinite power as it relates to his infinite goodness. It is intended to demonstrate the difference in categories that we use in order to communicate what we mean by specific concepts. In this case we are talking about the concepts of being powerful and of being honest. These are two dissimilar types in human experience and as such, the ambition of language is to illustrate as much.
Thomas Aquinas does much to clear this up for us: “If, however, we consider the matter aright, since power is said in reference to possible things, this phrase, God can do all things, is rightly understood to mean that God can do all things that are possible; and for this reason He is said to be omnipotent.” [Peterson, Philosophy of Religion] Aquinas gets to the issue quickly. It appears we have a category error on our hands. William Rowe adds to the conversation when he says, Therefore, a solution to the paradox is that God cannot create a stone so heavy he cannot lift it, for it is logically impossible for there to be a stone – or any other object, for that matter – that God is unable to lift. And, as we have seen above, it is no limitation of power to be unable to bring about something that is logically impossible. For power extends only to what is possible. [Wainwright, The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Religion]
George Mavrodes adds to the conversion: All I have intended to show is that certain arguments intended to prove that he is not omnipotent fail. They fail because they propose, as tests of God’s power, putative tasks whose descriptions are self-contradictory. Such pseudo-tasks, not falling within the realm of possibility, are not objects of power at all. Hence the fact that they cannot be performed implies no limit on the power of God, and hence no defect in th doctrine of omnipotence. [Brody, Readings in the Philosophy of Religion: An Analytic Approach]
Anthony Kenny says, “It must be a narrower omnipotence, consisting in the possession of all logically possible powers which it is logically possible for a being with the attributes of God to possess.” [Brody, Readings in the Philosophy of Religion: An Analytic Approach]
Finally, the real issue with this objection is that it forces the definition of omnipotence put forth by one giant philosopher, Rene Descartes, on the rest of Christianity and that is simply a very bad way to go about putting forth and attempting to sustain an objection to the Christian belief system. Descartes position was logically absurd. He actually postulated that God could have not existed while still creating everything that does exist. As William Lane Craig puts it, “This is simply nonsense.” [Craig and Moreland, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview]
This objection can be construed as affirming universal possibilism, the view that there are no necessary truths. Craig says, “For on this view an omnipotent deity could have brought it about that even logical contradictions be true and tautologies be false, as inconceivable as this may seem to us.” [Ibid.] The basic problem with this doctrine is that it is incoherent. Is the view that there are no necessary truths, necessarily true? This is to say that there is no possible world in which necessary truths exist. But it seems to me that this position is self-refuting. If it isn’t self-refuting, then the position is possibly false and if that is the case, then God could have brought it about that there are necessary truths. [see Craig and Moreland]
In the more common objection, can God make a stone so large that even he cannot lift it, John Frame points out, “So, what keeps God from making the stone is his infinity – not a weakness, but a strength.” [Frame, The Doctrine of God]
God cannot sin because God is not a man. In other words, God is not only infinitely powerful, he is infinitely good. Do we associate moral strength with weakness in power? To say that someone is morally strong is not to say that they are weak person. No one ever speaks like this except for desperate atheists busy suppressing the truth of God inside them. So, to Frame’s point above, the reason God cannon sin should not be construed as some sort of weakness, but as a strength. Who among us would say that a married man resisting the seductive temptations of a beautiful woman is somehow weak or deficient in power? Of course not. That would be absurd.
It comes down to category error. Moral behavior is not in the same category as power, or, what is logically possible. It is that understanding of omnipotent that is being claimed and it is only that understanding that we need to defend. This really is another straw man. While this objection was a bit more involved, it once again comes down to a view of God and of Christian belief that are inaccurate. You see, atheists do not understand Christian belief. They think they do, but they do not. They do not possess an accurate understanding of God. Because this is absolutely the case, you will not find valid objections to Christian belief from non-Christians like atheists.
Christian Reply to this objection:
First, Christianity does not claim that God can do anything imaginable. That was a view of one philosopher that has been misconstrued to represent Christian belief. It does not. Second, to say that God is omnipotent is to say that God can do whatever He pleases. There is nothing that God wants to do that he is unable to do. Third, to say that a being such as God is omnipotent is simply to say that such a being can do anything whatsoever that is compatible with his attributes. Objection overruled!