During the Q&A period of a recent talk I gave in Indiana, I was asked the question, “Can God create a rock too heavy for him to lift?”
The girl who posed the question did so with an air of triumphalism; as if she had got me! As if she had asked the question which, not even Thomas Aquinas had thought of, and who would have probably abandoned Christianity if he had.
Despite the initial brain cramp you might experience, this isn’t a difficult question to answer. It demonstrates a common misunderstanding of omnipotence.
Omnipotence does mean “all powerful,” it does not mean the ability to do the logically impossible.
There are certain things God cannot do. He cannot lie (Heb. 6:18), he cannot change (Malachi 3:6), etc. To do so would be to contradict his nature which is impossible. God would have to suffer some imperfection in order to lie or change; thus, he cannot do these things precisely because of his infinite power and perfection.
The answer to this girls question, therefore, is no he can’t. And this is so not because he is not infinite in power and perfection, but because he is!
Another way to think of this is to say God’s omnipotence means God can do all things that are real and possible. But because something that is logically impossible isn’t really a thing at all, it’s impossible to do.
The words of St. Thomas Aquinas—yep he knew the answer—may be of help here. He wrote, “It is more exact to say that the intrinsically impossible is incapable of production than to say that God cannot produce it.” (Summa I, Q. XXV, a. 3)
Last night I was explaining all of this to my five year old son.
“What else can’t God do?” He asked
“He can’t make a square circle.” I said.
“Could a transformer draw a square circle?” He said.
“No. No one can, because it’s impossible; logically incoherent.” I said.
“I bet could draw a square circle.” He said.
Smiling, I got him a marker and a piece of paper. Here’s his attempts:
Liam no longer believes that it’s possible to draw a square circle. Not even for God; or Batman.
If everything I’ve written up until now is as clear as mud, fear not. It’s time to hear it summed up by the master. C.S. Lewis wrote:
His Omnipotence means power to do all that is intrinsically possible, not to do the intrinsically impossible. You may attribute miracles to Him, but not nonsense. There is no limit to His power.
If you choose to say, ‘God can give a creature free will and at the same time withhold free will from it,’ you have not succeeded in saying anything about God: meaningless combinations of words do not suddenly acquire meaning simply because we prifex to them the two other words, ‘God can.’
It remains true that all things are possible with God: the intrinsic impossibilities are not things but nonentities. It is no more possible for God than for the weakest of His creatures to carry out both of two mutually exclusive alternatives; not because His power meets an obstacle, but because nonsense remains nonsense even when we talk it about God.