Monday, June 1, 2009

Could God create a stone so heavy He couldn't lift it?

Believers in God generally agree that God is omnipotent or all-powerful, or able to do all things. But it's also widely held that God is also perfectly good, which would seem to mean that there is something He cannot do, namely sin. It further seems plausible to believe that not even God could change the past, since it no longer exists and is therefore not around for any causal powers to affect it. And then there is our title question, versions of which have been around for centuries, which seems to admit only two possible answers: either God could, or could not, create such a stone. But if He could, then there could be something God cannot do (namely lift that stone); and if He could not, then there already is something God cannot do (namely create that stone). Any way you think about it, it seems there are or could be things God cannot do: sin, change the past, lift or create that stone. And how could God be omnipotent if there could be things He cannot do?

To answer, one must get clearer on what it means to say that
God is omnipotent.

The great medieval theologian, St. Thomas Aquinas, suggests it’s this: that God can do
all things that are possible. But which things are these, exactly? Well, Aquinas says, something is said to be possible in two senses: either in relation to or for some power, or absolutely, in itself. Lifting a spoon is said to be possible for human beings because we have the power to do so; and it is possible absolutely, in itself, because the idea of “lifting a spoon” doesn’t involve any contradictions. Now we shouldn’t say that God can do all things that are possible in the first sense, in relation to His own power, since that amounts merely to saying that He can do all the things He has the power to do –- which is true but rather uninformative. God’s omnipotence should therefore be understood in the second sense, as His ability to do everything that is possible absolutely, in itself; that is, to do everything that is logically possible, that does not involve a contradiction.

Some may feel that this is not enough; that God’s power is
such that He can do not only everything logically possible but even everything logically impossible –- that is, even things involving contradictions. But though this sounds impressive it actually doesn’t say very much. Consider some contradictory thing, such as a round square. You can form the phrase “round square,” but if you think about it you’ll realize that the phrase lacks any real meaning: if something is round it’s not square, and if it’s square it’s not round. To insist that God could make a round square is therefore to utter a literally meaningless sentence; it’s not really to add anything to His power. And if the alleged ability to do this contradictory thing doesn’t really add to God’s power, then neither does the inability to do it detract from His power.

Now understanding that God’s omnipotence is His ability
to do all logically possible (non-contradictory) things, Aquinas may resolve our puzzles. No, God cannot sin. But to sin is to fall short in some way; it is to be limited in one’s power to do as one should. Obviously an all-powerful being would be unable to do this, since His very power ensures that nothing could limit His power. So the idea of an all-powerful being sinning is the idea of an all-powerful being that is limited in its powers –- a contradiction. God’s inability to sin is an inability to do the impossible, so it’s not, therefore, a genuine limit on His power.

Similarly, that something is past means it occurred; to
change it would mean that it didn’t occur, which contradicts its occurring. So expecting God to be able to change the past –- or create a stone so heavy an omnipotent being like Himself couldn’t lift it -– is like expecting Him to create a round square. He can’t do any of these. But that’s not because His power –- to do all possible things –- is limited, but because none of these is, in itself, a logically possible thing to do.

Source: St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica I.25.3


  1. Great post that makes it very straightforward for us regular folk to understand and appreciate God's capabilities and limits! What heresy too LOL! Essentially, God's ability to do contradictions will inevitably contradict our Godly assertions of perfection. Thus,logically God must be bounded within what is simple, straightforward logic. This is the only way God can logically be God. Agreed! However, this is not how I as a Christian was taught to view God. I was taught that God must have access where humans logically cannot and where God may not be logically God. God's power must have a faith component that does not require logical reasoning.

    The real question is thus: Is faith logical?

  2. Consider the following bad-ass-ery: suppose that one objects to Aquinas' solution on the grounds that God's omnipotence requires that He be able to perform even logically impossible tasks.

    How, then, to answer the question, "can God create a burrito too spicy for Him to eat"? Can one avoid an atheistical conclusion here? Is an omnipotent being an impossibility?

    No problem! God _can_ create such a burrito -- and, despite the logical impossibility of doing so, eat it!

    Thus, either omnipotence does not entail the ability to perform logically impossible tasks (and the atheistical conclusion can be avoided) or omnipotence does entail the ability to perform logically impossible tasks (and the atheistical conclusion can be avoided).

    Something like this line of thought comes from Mavrodes' article on the topic... though the writing is so dense there that it is hard to tell.

    -Alex H

  3. Actually, revisiting the literature recently, I realized the view I described as involving "bad-ass-ery" comes from Frankfurt and not Mavrodes.

    -Alex Hughes

  4. Number 1 - A stone is finite
    Number 2 - God is infinite
    We must remember the clear distinction here in order to answer this question once and for all. The question itself is fallacious. Here's why: They're asking God to create a finite thing (stone) of infinite proportions (God). That is logically impossible, so the question itself is rubbish. We cannot say He can or cannot 'do' what the question is asking Him to do because the question in itself is illogical and therefore irrelevent. God can do ANYTHING He wants to do. He is omnipotent. There is nothing possible that he cannot do. Creating a stone too big for Him to lift is impossible, not because He cannot do it, but because it cannot be done.

  5. Could God create something infinite? Like could he make an infinite amount of books? Or is that a logical impossibility? Also does infinity include everything or just possible things?

  6. God can't do anything against his nature. Sinning is again his nature, thus he can't do it. God is supposed to be number one. He can't be overpowered or weaken to be anything lower. Creating a stone he couldn't lift is creating something stronger than him. Thus he can't do it because it is against his nature and will create something above him. There is my answer(this is assuming we are talking about the Christian god

  7. Jesus Christ as a person can not lift up a stone more that 100 kg (220 lb). But Jesus Christ as Creator created every stone and can lift up any stone.