Can God Create A Rock So Big He Can’t Lift It?

One of the most common charges atheists make is that the concept of God is incoherent, that is, that is contradicts itself. For example, a married bachelor is incoherent because the two terms are mutually exclusive. If I am married, I can’t be a bachelor, and if I’m a bachelor then I can’t be married. That is a simple example of incoherence, but others are very complicated. For instance, it is common to hear politicians accusing one another of being incoherent. Recent examples in American politics include Democrats accusing Republicans of worrying about deficits while blocking tax-increases and Republicans accusing Democrats of being for the lower and middle class while both blocking energy policies that would decrease gas prices (i.e., off-shore drilling) and simultaneously proposing policies that would increase them (i.e., “cap and trade”). If a position is incoherent, it can’t really be true.

Arguments about whether or not “God” is a coherent term run from very simple to very sophisticated. The simplest of these is to ask questions such as, “Can God create a rock so big He can’t lift it?” The implication is that if God is able to do anything, then He should be able to create such a rock. Yet if He does, then He would not be able to lift it, which would mean that He wasn’t really able to do anything. Or some may ask, “Can God remember a time He didn’t exist?” to imply that God is either omnipotent or omniscient, but He can’t be both.

These types of questions focus on God’s omnipotence by defining it as “the ability to do anything.” It is important to acknowledge here that, in one sense, the critic is right. There are some things that God cannot do. Many Christians have been tempted to respond by saying, “No, God’s omnipotence just means that He can do anything that can be done.” On the one hand, technically, they are correct, but it leaves them open to rendering God impotent. For instance, this may allow someone to say, “Well, God can’t do miracles, because miracles aren’t things that can be done.” If we accept the fact that miracles are impossible, then the statement must be true, but a God that cannot do miracles hardly seems worthy of being called God, and, in any case, is not the God of the Bible.

It is better to maintain the definition of omnipotence as “the ability to do anything” and insist that we are actually talking about any thing. Incoherent concepts themselves aren’t really things, because self-contradictory things aren’t real. Married bachelors can’t possibly exist, so it is meaningless to talk about them. The “idea” turns out not to be an idea at all. We can’t ask God to make a married bachelor, because God can do anything, but married bachelors aren’t things.

In other words, omnipotence means that God can do anything that actually has meaning.

Self-contradictory ideas like a rock so big that an omnipotent being can’t lift it are self-contradictory and thus have no meaning. They may sound like they mean something, but actually they are just words strung together. Even God cannot violate the law of non-contradiction, not because He is under that law, but because that law derives its meaning from what God already is. God is One. God Himself does not be and not be at the same time, and since everything gets its being from Him, then nothing in the universe can both be and not be at the same time. To say that anything does is meaningless, and so to ask god to do anything that violates the law of non-contradiction is meaningless.

There are serious debates that can be had about the coherence of the God-concept. Silly questions like “Can God create a rock so big He can’t lift it?” isn’t an example of one.


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