It's an old chestnut of a question, but whenever theists start talking about how their particular version of God is "omnipotent" some atheist wag will invariably ask, "If God is omnipotent, can He create a stone so massive that He can't move it?" To which the theist will usually respond, "that's a logical impossibility and being omnipotent means being able to do anything logically possible." OK, so no creating a stone too massive for Him to move, no creating a square circle, etc. Got it. And, presumably, this is because logic transcends human understanding and provides general principles of existence. There isn't "human logic" and "God logic," there's just logic.
With me so far?
OK, now one of the fundamental principles of logic is the so-called Law of Non-contradiction, which in its basic form states that, "Contradictory statements cannot both be true in the same sense at the same time." This means that the two propositions "A is B" and "A is not B" are mutually exclusive. It also means that something cannot simultaneously be two opposite things. This is why, for example, there can be no such thing as a square circle or an married bachelor since both concepts involve a self-contradiction.
So, is there anything about God's supposed nature that violates the Law of Non-contradiction?
Well, one place to start would be to examine the relationship between him supposedly being both omnipotent (all powerful) and omnibenevolent (all loving). This apparent contradiction was perhaps best stated by the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus, who put it this way:
God, he says, either wishes to take away evils, and is unable; or He is able, and is unwilling; or He is neither willing nor able, or He is both willing and able. If He is willing and is unable, He is feeble, which is not in accordance with the character of God; if He is able and unwilling, He is envious, which is equally at variance with God; if He is neither willing nor able, He is both envious and feeble, and therefore not God; if He is both willing and able, which alone is suitable to God, from what source then are evils? Or why does He not remove them?Or, as it is commonly put:
Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then He is not omnipotent.So that's it, right? The so-called "Problem of Evil" proves the logical impossibility of God since (a) Evil cannot exist if there is an omnipotent, omnibenevolent God and (b) we know from our own experience that there is, in fact, evil. Well, not quite...
Is He able, but not willing? Then He is not benevolent.
Is He both able and willing? Then whence comment evil?
Is He neither willing nor able? Then why call Him God?
Although this argument has been sufficient to convince many people throughout history to reject the idea of God, those who cling to their beliefs have come up with numerous ways to get around the apparent contradiction:
- "Evil," they will say, "is the result of human free will, and since God values free will more than anything He allows evil." Except, of course, this only applies to evil acts done as a result of human free will (murder, rape, robbery, etc.) and wholly ignores things like pain and suffering caused by genetic diseases, natural disasters, accidents, etc.
- "When Adam and Eve sinned against God in the Garden of Eden, the world fell into a fallen state, so all the evils in the world are a direct result of those actions." Except, of course, this doesn't explain why God would need to punish the entire world (not to mention universe) because of the actions of two people. Why not simply punish Adam and Eve (and all their descendants if God were feeling particularly vengeful) and leave the rest of the natural world alone? Why make animals die horribly painful and cruel deaths just to teach us a lesson? Wouldn't it be a more powerful lesson if everything in nature was blissfully happy except for us? Besides, God is the one who set the whole system up in the first place, so it was his decision to make the whole universe suffer for the sins of Adam and Eve and not their free will.
- "This life is a test, and how we deal with suffering will determine our eternal fate." Well, OK, but that seems awfully callous when applying it to, say, young children who are born with horrible genetic diseases that cause them to lead painfully short lives. It also doesn't address all the pain and suffering throughout the rest of the natural world.
- "This life is but a twinkling of an eye when compared to all eternity, so any pain and suffering we experience while alive will seem like a mere pin-prick when compared to the rest of our existence."
And the list goes on and on. The bottom line is that there's always some way to define "omnipotent", "omnibenevolent" and even "evil" to avoid inherent contradictions, even if the newly defined terms don't really make much sense or accord with experience. "An all-loving God is one who lets His children have free will, not freedom from suffering." "Pain and suffering are actually good things, not evils." You get the idea. As I said, a lot of people are not convinced by these rationalizations, but they do make it hard to state unequivocally that God is logically impossible solely due to the so-called Problem of Evil.
OK, how about this? In order to create the universe, which is the totality of all time and space, God must exist outside of time and space. Which means He must not be composed of matter or energy Himself. But, if God is not composed of matter or energy, how can He possibly have created matter and energy in the first place and how can He continue to interact with it today? That seems like a logical contradiction, doesn't it?
Well, not quite. Even if we accept that God is composed of neither matter nor energy, we cannot state unequivocally that He would therefore be unable to interact with matter and energy. In the same way that energy can interact with matter despite not being composed of matter, God could be composed of some entirely different substance (let's call it "mind" or "spirit") that can interact with matter and energy in some way we just can't understand. Of course, we now know that energy actually is composed of matter in a very real sense, but that just means the analogy (commonly used by theistic apologists) is a bad one. It doesn't change the fact that God logically could be composed of some other substance that allows Him to interact with matter and energy without being composed of matter or energy Himself.
OK, so the mere fact that God somehow interacts with matter and energy while being composed of neither is not, in and of itself, a logical impossibility. I think we are getting very close, however...
In order to avoid any apparent contradictions inherent in the notion of a God who is timeless and not composed of matter or energy, Christian apologists over the years have declared that God is both "Transcendent" and "Immanent". According to Wikipedia, the two terms are defined as follows:
Transcendence refers to the aspect of a god's nature and power which is wholly independent of the material universe, beyond all physical laws. This is contrasted with Immanence, where a god is said to be fully present in the physical world and thus accessible to creatures in various ways.Or, in other words, God is both wholly apart from the material universe and wholly within the material universe. At the same time. He is simultaneously B and not B. His very nature is therefore in violation of the Law of Non-contradiction and He is therefore logically impossible. Q.E.D.
Now, some will argue (and believe me, they have) that it doesn't matter if God is logically impossible since we're only talking about human logic here and God is above such things. Well, fine, except then why do you claim that an omnipotent God can't create a rock too massive for Him to move or can't create a square circle? Aren't those just principles of human logic as well? It seems that if you want to apply some logical principles to God, you would have to apply all of them (not just the ones that are convenient).
It seems that theists are left with three possible responses to this:
- They can claim that God isn't bound by anything whatsoever and therefore can actually create a rock too massive for Him to move, create a square circle, etc. Of course, once you throw all logic out the window it becomes rather pointless to discuss anything, but some theists are apparently willing to do just this.
- They can claim that Immanence and Transcendence aren't actually opposites despite the plain definitions of the words. But, since the whole idea of God being both Immanent and Transcendent is a way to explain how He could create the universe and still be part of the universe, there's no real way of getting around the fact that they are, in fact, complete opposites. A lot of theists do go down this path, but they are usually the same ones who will write dissertations on how God can simultaneously be three distinct beings and one unified being that is absolutely not made up of three distinct beings whatsoever ["We worship one God in trinity, and trinity in unity, neither confounding the persons nor dividing the substance. For the person of the Father is one; of the Son, another; of the Holy Spirit, another. But the divinity of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit is one, the glory equal, the majesty equal. Such as is the Father, such also is the Son, and such the Holy Spirit. The Father is uncreated, the Son is uncreated, the Holy Spirit is uncreated. The Father is infinite, the Son is infinite, the Holy Spirit is infinite. The Father is eternal, the Son is eternal, the Holy Spirit is eternal. And yet there are not three eternal Beings, but one eternal Being. So also there are not three uncreated Beings, nor three infinite Beings, but one uncreated and one infinite Being. In like manner, the Father is omnipotent, the Son is omnipotent, and the Holy Spirit is omnipotent. And yet there are not three omnipotent Beings, but one omnipotent Being. Thus the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God. And yet there are not three Gods, but one God only. The Father is Lord, the Son is Lord, and the Holy Spirit is Lord. And yet there are not three Lords, but one Lord only. For as we are compelled by Christian truth to confess each person distinctively to be both God and Lord, we are prohibited by the Catholic religion to say that there are three Gods or Lords. The Father is made by none, nor created, nor begotten. The Son is from the Father alone, not made, not created, but begotten. The Holy Spirit is not created by the Father and the Son, nor begotten, but proceeds. Therefore, there is one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons; one Holy Spirit, not three Holy Spirits. And in this Trinity there is nothing prior or posterior, nothing greater or less, but all three persons are coeternal and coequal to themselves. So that through all, as was said above, both unity in trinity and trinity in unity is to be adored. Whoever would be saved, let him thus think concerning the Trinity."]
- They can just wave their magical Wand of DefinitionsTM and state that God is defined as the sort of being who can be both Transcendent and Immanent without there being any sort of logical contradiction involved.