The Things God Can’t Do

The Old Testament book of Job is a fascinating story that dwells upon the problem of evil and suffering. In the book, Job, who is eminently righteous by all accounts, loses his wealth and family in the course of a few days. Job and his friends then give a series of speeches to one another in which they critique their peers’ understanding of God, evil, and suffering. At the end of the final speech, Elihu, who happened to be speaking at the time, says: “Out of the north he comes in golden splendor; God comes in awesome majesty.”[1] Whether Elihu saw something or not, God immediately comes on the scene and begins correcting Job and his compatriots. Following God’s speeches in Job 38-41—which are well worth reading in their entirety, I might add—a newly humbled Job says to God: “I know that you can do all things.”[2]

Orthodox Christianity posits that God holds all the omni-attributes. God, for example, is omnipresent, meaning that God is equally present at all places and at all times. Similarly, God is omniscient, meaning that God is all knowing, or that God knows the truth values of all propositions; indeed, some theologians believe that God has middle knowledge, meaning that God knows the truth value of counterfactuals. For example, God knows what would have taken place if the Allied advance had been halted in Europe during World War 2. Finally, God is omnipotent, meaning that, following Job, God can do all things.

Saying that God can do all things is problematic, however. There certainly seem to be things that God can’t do. There are, for example, things that the Bible says God can’t do: James 1.13 tells us that “God cannot be tempted, nor does he tempt anyone.”[3] Thus, divine omnipotence cannot mean that God can do literally anything; it must mean something weaker. Perhaps we could define divine omnipotence thusly: Divine omnipotence is God’s power to do anything that does not violate his nature. Working with this definition, since sin violates God’s nature, God cannot sin. Millard Erickson, a leading evangelical theologian of the twentieth century, defined divine omnipotence as “God’s ability to do all things that are proper objects of power.”[4] Following Erickson, we could say that the ability to sin is not a “proper object of power,”[5] but a weakness. The ability to lie, for example, is not technically an ability; instead, lying is a lack of the resolve needed to tell the truth. Lying is thus a weakness, not a strength.

A second class of things that I believe God cannot do are things that violate logic. Everyone grasps basic logic even if they don’t know the names of the thought patterns. Imagine the following scenario: You’re heading to Wal-Mart when you realize it’s raining outside. You know that if it’s raining, you’ll want your raincoat; you then grab your raincoat and head to the store. You’ve just followed the thought pattern known as modus ponens.

Another example of logic: Imagine that you’re reading an article about President Trump’s latest tweet on Fox News’s website. Later, while scrolling through Facebook, you see a link to an MSNBC article about the same tweet. You read the MSNBC article and realize that Fox News and MSNBC have polar-opposite, contradictory understandings concerning the same tweet. You make an inference: One (or both) of them is incorrect; or, perhaps, you might say that one of them is “fake news.” You’ve just followed the law of Noncontradiction.

A third example of elementary logic: You’re considering religious truth claims made by your pastor around Christmas. He stood in the pulpit and unequivocally affirmed that Jesus was born of a virgin. While considering whether or not you can assent to such a miraculous claim, you examine the evidence in favor of Jesus being born of a virgin and the evidence against Jesus being born of a virgin with the knowledge that one of these claims simply must be true. In this example, you’re employing the law of the excluded middle.

Logic is as ubiquitous as it is reliable; even animals operate according to basic logic! When I grab the treat bag, my dog comes running because she grasps the logical connection between my grabbing the treats and her getting a snack. Where did creation get this logic? What makes logic work?

Christians ground logic in God. Logic is reliable because we have a logical God; logic is, in a sense, an outworking of God’s personality in his creation. Logic, like morality, is God’s fingerprint on his handiwork. Why is it good to love your neighbor? Because God’s personality is loving. Why is that logic works? Because God is a logical being.

Now you might see a good objection to this thesis: Doesn’t saying that God is bound by logic limit him and thus keep him from being the greatest being?[6] Am I not, after all, setting up human logic as a second god who limits the God of the Bible?

No, I am not, and here’s why: I am not saying that logic is above God. Instead, I am saying that logic, like morality, is a part of God’s personality and character. These are not things external to God that rule over him, but things that are internal to God. God cannot be immoral because it is God’s nature to be moral and God never violates his nature; similarly, God cannot be illogical because it is God’s nature to be logical and God never violates his nature.

If logic is truly a part of God’s personality as a rational being, then God’s omnipotence, his ability to do anything, does not include an ability to do something illogical. God thus cannot make a married bachelor because this is a logical contradiction and would thus violate his nature as a rational being.

We should be glad that we have a logical God because were God not logical, we wouldn’t be able to trust him. If God didn’t follow logic, then he could sin and not sin, be benevolent and malevolent, and reveal himself and not reveal himself all at the same time. Furthermore, if God were not logical, we wouldn’t be able to relate to him. God tells us that if we come to him through Christ, he will forgive our sins; if God were not logical, he could forgive our sins and hold our sins against us at the same time.

Christians agree with Job: God is omnipotent and can do all things. Omnipotence, however, is not a simple as it may appear at first blush. Jejune objections about four-sided triangles and rocks that are too big to lift cannot affect divine omnipotence without resorting to straw-men. We believe that God is able to do anything that does not violate his nature; the interesting part is what exactly constitutes a violation of God’s nature.

Notes & Sources

[1] Job 37.23, all scripture quotes are taken from the NIV.

[2] Job 42.2

[3] James 1.13

[4] Millard Erickson, The Concise Dictionary of Christian Theology, Rev. Ed. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2001), 80.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Plato’s Euthyphro Dilemma is essentially the same objection but with morality in the place of logic.

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