Can God create a rock so heavy, that He cannot lift it?
It’s a question often asked by skeptics as a way challenge the Christian view of an omnipotent God. It is essentially a trick question, because if you answer yes, you’re admitting God cannot lift the rock and therefore God is not omnipotent because He can’t do something. If you answer no, then you’re admitting God has limitations as to what He can create, and is therefore not omnipotent. No matter how you answer, with a yes or no, God comes out failing the omnipotence test.
Maybe you’ve heard this question a thousand times. Maybe this is your first. One thing you can be certain of is that this is not some newly conceived challenge to the omnipotence of God. This question is actually a very old challenge going back hundreds of years and has been answered thoroughly by many great philosophical minds during the time that has elapsed. Yet it seems to be a standard issue challenge still utilized by young atheists.
So how do you answer this trick question in which any answer seems to come out bad for God?
Possible vs. Impossible
According to 13th century theologian and philosopher St. Thomas Aquinas, the answer lies in acknowledging what omnipotence actually is. Whereas many Christians might hold onto a notion that God is capable of doing anything and everything to describe his omnipotence, Aquinas disagrees. He proposes that God can only do what is possible, by breaking down possibility into two types: Relative and Absolute (Rowe, 6). Relative possibility is something possible for certain beings. For example, a fish can breath underwater, which is impossible for a bird. Absolute possibility is something possible if not a contradiction in terms. A contradiction in terms could be a married bachelor, or a shape that is both round and square, or defeating your opponent in chess after you’ve been checkmated. These things are not possible because they are a contradiction in terms. The only way out of the contradiction is to redefine the terms.
Aquinas declares that God’s omnipotence must be within the context of absolute possibility, not relative possibility. For if it was only relative then God’s omnipotence would be no greater than a bird’s omnipotence to do only what is possible for a bird to do, like fly. Therefore, God’s omnipotence must transcend to all things possible that are not contradictory. Aquinas writes, “Whatever implies contradiction does not come with the scope of divine omnipotence, because it cannot have the aspect of possibility. Hence it is more appropriate to say that such things cannot be done, than that God cannot do them,” (Rowe, 7).
Now for many Christians this might be hard to swallow, because it is accepting that God is limited in some way. It might seem blasphemous to say God is limited in power and ability. But if you really think about it, this is what we read of God in the Bible. We read that God cannot sin (1 John 3:9). Isn’t that a limitation? What about committing to evil or killing Himself? Aren’t these things that God cannot do because they are contradictory to his nature? Technically speaking, committing evil or killing Himself is contradictory if God is good and eternal. So it is not inappropriate to say God has limitations in that He can only do what is not a contradiction in terms.
Professor emeritus of philosophy at Purdue University William L. Rowe explains why this approach to omnipotence does not infringe on God’s sovereignty, “So there are many things that God, despite being omnipotent, cannot do. It would be a mistake, however, to conclude from this that God’s power is somehow limited, that there are things he cannot do which, if only his power were greater, he could do,” and later, “ …God can do anything that is an absolute possibility and not inconsistent with being perfectly good, and since being perfectly good is a basis attribute of God, the fact that God cannot do evil will not conflict with the fact that he is omnipotent, ” (Rowe, 7-8).
Professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of Michigan, George Mavrodes, agrees that these limitations do not undermine God’s omnipotence, “My failure to draw a circle on the exam may indicate my lack of geometrical skill, but my failure to draw a square circle does not indicate any such lack,” (Mavrodes, 89-90).
Another way to approach the rock paradox is by examining your starting assumption. If you start with the assumption that God is not omnipotent then the problem will bring you right back to your original assumption, that God is not omnipotent. On the other hand, if you approach the paradox with the assumption God is omnipotent, then the problem becomes self-contradictory because it would mean that a stone is too large to be lifted by a being that can lift anything. Since such a scenario is impossible, under the given assumption, so it does not undermine the doctrine of omnipotence.
Mavrodes argues that one can be asked the question of the stone, answer yes, and be correct, given that someone argues that such a circumstance is not contradictory (Mavrodes, 90). For example, an Atheist can deny the contradictory nature of the problem, but if he or she does, all that one must do is answer, “yes, God CAN create such a stone.” Thus the atheist has to accept that omnipotence since they denied the contradiction. The only other route for the atheist is to accept the contradiction, which is excluded from omnipotence.
“Such pseudo-tasks, not falling within the realm of possibility, are not objects of power at all. Hence the fact that they cannot be performed implies no limit on the power of God, and hence no defect in the doctrine of omnipotence,” writes Mavrodes (Mavrodes, 91).
A Limitless God
Rene Descartes, a 17th century mathematician and philosopher, however, believed it blasphemous to limit God to only do what is logically possible, “In general we can be quite certain that God can do whatever we are able to understand. For it would be presumptuous to think that our imagination extends as far as His power,” (Frankfurt, 93). In other words, something may seem a contradiction due to our cognitive limitations, but to an omnipotent being with superior understanding, there is no such contradiction, and the realm of possibility extends far greater than what we as humans can conceive as being possible.
Harry G. Frankfurt, Professor emeritus of philosophy at Princeton University, seems to pull form this notion and find a way to solve the rock paradox without a supposed blasphemous limit on God’s omnipotence. He points out, “…if God is supposed to be capable of performing one task whose description is self-contradictory- that of creating the problematic stone in the first place- why should He not be supposed capable of performing another- that of lifting the stone? After all, is there any greater trick in performing two logically impossible tasks than there is in performing one?” (Frankfurt, 92).
Frankfurt continues, “If an omnipotent being can do what is logically impossible then He can not only create situations which He cannot handle but also, since He is not bound by the limits of consistency, He can handle situations which He cannot handle,” (Frankfurt, 92). In other words, if God can do the impossible by creating a stone too heavy to lift, then He could likewise do the impossible and lift the stone.
Whether you choose the absolute possibility approach, the starting assumption approach, or the limitless approach, there are multiple ways to handle the stone that is too heavy to be lifted. I believe the greater and more difficult question to ask, is why skeptics still resort to a question that has been thoroughly answered in not one, but three ways.
Frankfurt, H.G., “The Logic of Omnipotence,” as written in Louis Pojman and Michael Rea’s, Philosophy of Religion; An Anthology, 6th Edition, (Boston, MA: Wadsworth), 2012.
Mavrodes, G., “Some Puzzles Concerning Omnipotence,” as written in Louis Pojman and Michael Rea’s, Philosophy of Religion; An Anthology, 6th Edition, (Boston, MA: Wadsworth), 2012.
Rowe, W.L., (2007) Philosophy of Religion; An Introduction, 4th Edition, (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth).