Can God Make a Rock?

We are often presented with “unanswerable” questions by those who find the idea of God to be either ridiculous or self-contradictory. One aspect or another of the divine fullness is attacked by those who question every minute of every hour. Many of us, who believe that God is the God of traditional Christian expression, have had the question put to us “Can God Make a Rock that God can’t lift?” This post is a short exercise in answering this very question from a number of different theological perspectives. The first approaches the logic of the proposed situation, the second approaches the logic of the question itself, and the third approaches it from a specifically Christian perspective.

1. The Logic of the Proposed Situation

The question is aimed at attacking the omnipotence of God, or even the concept of omnipotence itself. The general idea is that because there are conflicting and mutually exclusive potential realities that an omnipotent God cannot exist, because both alternatives cannot logically be accomplished. Thus, the question asks whether it is possible for God to create a rock that omnipotence cannot lift. If the creation of the rock cannot be done, then God is not omnipotent. If the rock cannot be lifted, the same outcome results.

The question assumes a model of omnipotence that no theologian that I am aware of holds or has ever held in the Christian faith (though I did once meet a pastor who thought this way). The most famous statement on this is from the Summa Theologiae of St. Thomas Aquinas, who states “whatever implies contradiction does not come within the scope of divine omnipotence, because it cannot have the aspect of possibility.” (Summa Theolog. I Q25, 3). Thus, whenever Christians say that God is all powerful, we mean specifically that all intrinsically possible things are within God’s power. Thus, God cannot make a square a circle and also leave it a square. It is possible for a square to become a circle, but it is not possible for it to also remain a square during or after the change.

Now that fact has major ramifications for many questions of Christian theology. For those who hold merely to forensic justification or imputed righteousness, one must ask how a person can be saved, i.e. have the life of God, and be in the very likeness of God, while remaining what they were beforehand. These models seem to propose that God can make a circle into a square and leave it still a circle after the fact. Such a thing is impossible, even for a God for whom all things are impossible.

Thus the question of the rock and God’s power, proposes a logically contradictory situation. God cannot create a rock that God cannot lift, not because it is a possibility that there can be rocks that omnipotence cannot lift, but because it is a sheer impossibility. A rock, being a rock, must have weight, even if it is by some miracle of physics, infinite weight. Omnipotence can easily create enough force to move the rock. The logical contradiction is if Omnipotence could not move the rock, for then it would not be omnipotence. Thus we are left with a situation in which God can create a rock of any size, but the fact that it could not be lifted by omnipotence is itself a logical contradiction, and as we have seen, nothing that implies contradiction falls under the omnipotence of God…or any omnipotence for that matter.

Now, if this means that omnipotence is impossible, in the sense that many of our detractors imagine it, then we must agree, and have always agreed. Omnipotence which implies the ability to do logically contradictory things has never been, to my knowledge, put forward as an attribute of God by any reputable theologian in the entire history of the Church. So, we may agree with our detractors in deriding this particular version of omnipotence. Thank goodness we’ve never actually proposed it.

2. The Logic of the Question

The question itself is structured in a way that most people do not notice. It essentially forms a double negative, and thus condemns God, not for a lack of power, but for actually being omnipotent. I found this answer while reading Gregory of Nazianzus’ Orations, but the answer is so obvious that I’m embarrassed that I did not see it myself immediately.

On the surface, the question proposes two powers that God may have. The first is the ability to create rocks of any size or weight. The second is the power to not lift a rock over a certain size. Immediately the problem comes out at once. The second is not a power at all, not an ability that God can have. The first is the ability to create rocks of any size at all. The second, however, is not an addition to power, but a subtraction of it.

To say that God lacks the ability to not be able to move certain sizes of rock is simply a very complicated way of saying God can move any rock. The fact that God can move rocks is a power, the ability to find a rock, or even to create a rock, that God can’t move, is not an addition to God’s power, but a subtraction from it. The trick to the question it that it shrouds the proposed lack of God’s power as if it were an addition to it. This would be like proposing the idea that I am a poor writer because I cannot write a sentence that I cannot read. (One need not resort, incidentally, to such complicated means to argue for the weaknesses in my writing). If I were a great writer, I could write any sentence. But I must not be a very good one, if there are sentences from my own hand that I cannot read. This is, of course, nonsense.

3. The Christian Response

This will not be a “Christian” Response in the manner that it will attempt to be nice. Christians should in fact be nice, as far as that goes, but they should also be as accurate as possible, and as faithful to the truth as possible. This answer is Christian, in the sense that it comes only from a Christian perspective. The first two answers could be given by anyone of any faith with a little logic behind them. This, however, turns on that most peculiar of Christian doctrines, the Incarnation.

For, it is true that God has made many stones that God cannot lift. One might guess that any stone much over a hundred and fifty pounds would be too much for the God of the Universe. For we, as Christians, believe that God emptied Godself in the act of becoming human, and dwelling among us. God, with human hands and feet, could not lift the vast majority of stones in the world. The body of a carpenter or stonecutter is strong, and Jesus of Nazareth could almost certainly bench more than I can. But the range of human strength is quite limited. Human beings are small things when it comes to the vast weight of many stones. And this Jesus, though God of the universe, was also a man.

And thus the answer particularly from Christianity is, yes. God can, and has, made many stones that God cannot lift. And this too is no detraction from His power. For the God of all creation to empty Himself, a process called Kenosis, is a vast and mighty miracle. To bridge the gap from that which is not created, God the Trinity, to that which is, the universe, and that particular bit we call Earth, is a miracle that even dwarfs the creation of the Universe itself. So mighty is God that God can walk with human feet, and hold things with human hands. But then, those hands can only hold so much.

Of course, we remember as well that Christ knew very well about humanity’s rock problems. So he offered us the power to move them, to become like Him, and to be able, through faith to move mountains. (Mt 17:20)

So ultimately, the question is not, “Can God make a rock so big that he cannot move it?” The question is “Can God make a rock so big, that those made to share God’s own nature cannot move it?” And the answer, thanks be to God, is no.

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Ethics Without Teeth

Mr. Zindler has written a post that outlines why Atheism can in fact have ethics without divine fiat (found here: http://www.atheists.org/content/ethics-without-gods).  The question has been addressed by numerous people, but bears some reexamination.  Mr. Zindler’s article can be broken down into a number of simple and worthwhile points.  I will address a number of these together immediately after, and then go on to some particular responses, following that.

1.  The ancient Greeks and Romans had ethics without divine fiat, especially some well known figures such as Aristotle and Marcus Aurelius.  These ethics were very serviceable at that time, though they would perhaps not be today.

2.  Religious people do not actually act good because they fear hell or hope for heaven.

3.  Our psychological makeup, formed by evolution, wishes to be surrounded by happiness, and thus drives us to make the people around us happy.  We are by nature, tuned to care for each other so that we ourselves will be happy.

4.  Altruism, or some form of it, is demonstrated by our near relatives in the animal world.  Heroism, is older than religion, and thus needs no foundation in religion.

5. Religious moral codes are stuck in previous times and places, and have not changed with the times.  Ethics are to be planted on the ground of scientific self-knowledge, and thus must change as our knowledge of science changes.

6.  Gods are not solid grounds of ethics anyway.  Either they decree whatever they will, and thus goodness is arbitrary, or they recognize universal truths outside of themselves, and then what do we need them for?

7.  Practice of Enlightened Self-Interest is the best way to gain prolonged happiness.

8.  Ethics is not a list of do’s and don’ts, but the practice of predicting outcomes and acting in the way that brings the most prolonged happiness to oneself.  Because we are social creatures, hard wired to find the most happiness when others around us are happy, then we would do best to keep as many other people as happy as possible to prolong our own happiness.

Each of these points is excellently made by Mr. Zindler.  However, the central theological question for Atheists is not, “can you have ethics without a God,” but “can your ethics have an imperative ground without a god?”  We may set up whatever rules for ourselves we like, but when push comes to shove, why should I do this or that?  For morality and ethics are the sciences of “should” and “should not.”  A man should not secretly murder a homeless man on the street, even if there is no chance of his getting caught, and every chance that the man’s death might make everyone on the street happier.  But by Mr. Zindler’s showing, there is no good evolutionary reason not to kill such a man, except that I should not do it too often and risk capture or reprisal.

In fact, the whole upshot of Mr. Zindler’s ethics is “if you do blatantly bad things too often, people will kill you.”  Yes, unless you are the strongest person in the room, or the one with the biggest weapons, or the one who has decided to make the other biggest, strongest, most well armed people happy and no others.  I may make a man with a machine gun happy, only to take the gun, shoot him in the head, and then be the man with the machine gun myself.  In a poor village with no one to stop me, and in a backwater that no world government cares about, who is to say, by Mr. Zindler’s definition, that I am wrong to rape and steal if I, or I and a few close friends, have machine guns, and the villagers do not?

There is no force of “should” to Mr. Zindler’s ethics, except “I should do this if I want to be happiest.”  But if the plunder of a village, and the rape of women and children makes me happy…as it seems to for quite a number of people in the history of the world, not simply the rare sociopath or psychopath, then where is the impetus to not do these things?  If, in fact, I do these things to increase the wealth of my own village, at the expense of other villages, I am not, by Mr. Zindler’s definition, being unethical.

Ultimately, Mr. Zindler has presented a method for treating human beings merely as objects through which we are to attain our own prolonged happiness.  But he has failed to show that there is any ground for me to follow these rules when they no longer suit me, or for me to make any claims against anyone else’s actions.  Nor has he shown good reason why rational sentient creatures should show the kind of heroism that he describes in his description of African Apes.  An ape may be driven by strong instinctual forces to die for those who can still reproduce, but a human can make a conscious choice.  And that choice, if driven by Mr. Zindler’s ethics, can never be made for the prolonged happiness of self if that choice leads to the death of the self.  In fact, when weighing between non-existence, and a semi-happy, or even miserable life, the life of any kind offers more chance of happiness than non-existence.  So, by Mr. Zindler’s ethics, anything at all should be chosen over the loss of one’s own life, since the pursuit of happiness is the ultimate goal of human ethics, and no happiness can come to a person who does not exist.

Thus, while Mr. Zindler shows that people can in fact have ethics, a statement that Theologians would not, I think, argue with, he fails to show that the ethics he can come up with are unworthy of the name.  In fact, he once more shows how weak such atheistic ethics really are when they are held up to simple reason and practical example.

Particular Responses:

Now, to some of his more interesting points.  (2)The fear of hellfire may not be the impetus for good action in many people, but can Mr. Zindler show that it is not the impetus in most or all religious people?  Certainly there are a vast number of religious personal accounts which contradict this statement.  One need only consider the piety of the late medieval period to find Mr. Zindler’s statement to be highly uniformed.

(6)His dissection of Plato is flawed as well, especially in a world where both Christianity and Islam have deeply considered Plato’s writings.  The Christian theological answer to this is that God, as the ground of being, forms all things in God’s own likeness, and therefore as a reflection of God’s own goodness.  Telling the truth is good because it reflects the Character of God who, being external to time and space, is not subject to predicates of condition.  Thus, we cannot say “God might have been a liar” because “might have been” is properly predicated of entities with a past and dependent on external conditions.  The Christian understanding of God is that neither of these apply, as God is external to time (Eternal) and unconditioned (no external power shapes God to be what God is).  Thus, ethics in Christian Theology are not merely the whim of a God, nor a God observing an external reality, but the very character of God, the ground of all being, reflected in the world that God created.  (5)  Thus, since God is unchanging, the structure of ethics and morals are unchanging.  If Christian ethics are stuck in an ancient time, it is not because they have merely been carried forward; it is because they reflect unchanging realities in the created world.  Therefore they carry the weight of “Should” because they are intrinsic to the very nature of the created reality.  We are made to follow them, and not following them does violence to ourselves and others, in either very practical ways (which he has shown through his explanation of our sociological and psychological norms) or in ways which we may call “Spiritual” that lead us further from these eternal moral realities.

(4) Mr. Zindler claims that Heroism is older than religion. Where is his evidence of this?  Certainly Heroism is older than the oldest Monotheistic religions, but where is this historical record of pre-religious humanity?  The simple fact is we have none.  Mr. Zindler is making a claim that cannot here be backed up by anyone, but is simply fueled by a myth propagated by people who dislike religion, and thus believe, without any kind of historical evidence, that early humans did not have religion.

The Sweet Law

This post is specifically about an element of Lutheran theology that I find problematic.  For some, I believe, this will appear to be an attack on a central tenet of their faith.  It is not meant as an attack, but perhaps the beginning of a dialog.  For those who are not familiar with the Law/Gospel distinction, we may summarize it briefly to begin with.

In the Lutheran teaching of Law/Gospel, as I understand it, Law is defined as those teachings which convict, or command a person.  If a teaching places any weight whatsoever on a person, it is seen as Law.  Perhaps the epitome of the “law” teachings of the New Testament is “Be ye therefore perfect even as your Father in heaven is perfect”  (Mt 5:48).  Over and against this is “Gospel” that good news that God has done all things for you, and you need not do anything.  God has you well in hand, and your salvation is assured through your Baptism and Jesus’ death and resurrection.  Law treats things as if they are on your shoulders, Gospel reveals that they are really on God’s.

The problem with all of this is that the line between the believer and Christ is blurred so heavily in the New Testament, that these kind of distinctions are no longer valid.  While there is a distinction between the freedom of Christ and the Torah in the New Testament, there is no demonstrable theme of this kind of distinction between those things which call us to righteousness, and those things which reveal that such calls are already met by Christ.

Instead, there is a demonstrable theme of Christ’s commands revealing the life of God in the world.  Christ’s moral directives of the Sermon on the Mount culminate with the “Be ye perfect” line.  The whole of the Sermon on the Mount appears as Law in the Law/Gospel dichotomy, yet it stands as one of the centers of the Matthean account of Jesus’ public Ministry and teaching.  St. John has Jesus tell us that if we love Him, we will obey what He commands us.

The key thing to these and other passages is that these words are given in the context that the commands bring life and joy, not sorrow and weight that will be overcome by the Cross.  Christ is preaching Good News, and not Law in the sense of the Law/Gospel contrast.  In fact, it is very clear by a simple and plain reading of the Gospels that the Law of Christ is not opposed to the Gospel.  Christ is commanding us to live in ways that are liberating, life giving, and ultimately transforming.  The transformation that comes in obeying Christ is salvific in nature, turning us from the kingdom of death to the kingdom of Heaven.

In other words, the Law of Christ is the Gospel.

And we can see why this must be.  For God to command us to forgive is not a burden, though it may be hard in our fallen state.  It is good, it is “True” in the same way that the Hebrew writers said that the Torah is “True.”  One gets a sense of this from a section from Psalm 19:

The law of the Lord is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the decrees of the Lord are sure,
making wise the simple;
the precepts of the Lord are right,
rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is clear,
enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the Lord is pure,
enduring for ever;
the ordinances of the Lord are true
and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold,
even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey,
and drippings of the honeycomb.

In the Law/Gospel distinction, the law is anything but sweet.  It is a burden to the soul from which we are freed.  Christ has done all, we need not.  But is that really good news?

The question revolves around the character of God.  For a God who does not demand that His children be righteous is hardly a righteous God.  A God who says, oddly enough “I am righteous, therefore you need not be” (which is the logic inherent in the statement that Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us) is hardly a God we should rejoice at having.  We may be glad when we want to do something rather shady, or when we consider the shady things we have done.  But we can hardly be glad overall.

But a God who will not let us merely live as sinners, but demands righteousness from us, who will descend to our own fallen nature and lift it back up with Him into the Godhead, who will infuse us with His own life so that we might be made righteous as co-workers with God…this is a God worth rejoicing over.  For all who have not simply been sinners, but the victims of sinners, must rejoice at a God who demands that all victimization stop.  It is not “Law” that says that we must love without limit, it is Gospel that demands it.  The Good news to the poor, the freedom to the slaves, is not merely that Christ has won the victory, but that that victory conquers all sin in all hearts everywhere; and that that conquest continues today in the heart of the person writing, and in the heart of the persons reading.

Ultimately, the real Gospel is a Gospel that in fact does call us to be righteous, and will not leave us unchanged.  It calls us to be transformed into the living images of the living God.

Now, a word must be said here about historical context.  Lutheranism appears in history as a response to the tortured conscience of many late medieval Christians bound up in the piety of their age.  It offered relief to the beleaguered heart who thought that her salvation depended on her good works.  The doctrines of this tradition still offer such rest to people suffering from the same ills.

However, the very question of earning one’s salvation, or not earning it, is not a question that has arisen in our modern age.  It is a question kept alive by the mere fact that much of protestantism has carried forward its original arguments against Catholicism and other branches of Protestantism into the modern day ripped from their contexts.  People, it seems, mainly worry about earning their salvation or not because we have told them to worry about that.  (There are exceptions to this, I admit).

It is my desire that we set this question where it belongs, in the past.  The question of earning salvation or not earning it, is the wrong question.  We have been made, in Christ, fellow workers with God (1 Cor 3:9, 2 Cor 6:9).  Once we are in Christ, we begin the process of growing into the statue of Christ, and thus increasing in our salvation from sin day by day, and entering into the heavenly communion day by day.  This is not a state of waiting for our reward, or hoping for heaven, or even simply knowing that all has been done for me.  It is a state of having been given the power to be called the sons and daughters of God in Christ, and living as Christ on earth.

To live as Christ on earth, and to hope in the resurrection, is salvation.  To claim that there is some distinction between the commands of this new life, and the freedom of this new life, is to misunderstand Christ on a fundamental level.  To claim that here is some distinction between faith in Christ and living as Christ, is to make the same mistake.