Is God Omnipotent?

30 Aug 2010

Can God do anything at all? How about the oft-repeated paradox of, “Can God create a rock too heavy for him to lift?” There is a very real question of just what level of control God exerts over his creation. Our human ideas and logic can cloud the issue and distort which aspect is really important.

A very pertinant question that this idea leads to is along the lines of, “Could God have achieved his purpose in creation without death and violence appearing in the world?” A “no” would imply a limitation of powers, while a “yes” would beg the question of why He didn't go about it that way. We end up with a God that either couldn't do things “better”, or didn't want to. So this question deeply impacts the way we see God in relation to suffering.

At this point, the rationalisation is often to say that death is a result of humanity, and that it came into being as a result of the provision of free will. The consequences of the sin in the garden of Eden are clearly described. Romans 5:12 states that “through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin.”

However, these aspects of free-will can be considered to be part of God's purpose. As such, the question still remains whether God could have achieved his full purpose, including all the aspects of free-will he desired, without the suffering we see in the world. The specification of the task can be increased until eventually one must reach a point where the answer becomes, “no, God can't do that.” If for nothing else, that ends up being the response to logical contortions such as “Can God kill someone without that person being killed?”

God's Incapability

Looking to the Bible, there are examples showing God incapable of doing certain things. In Hebrews and Titus we see it impossible for God to lie,

Hebrews 6:18: that by two immutable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we might have strong consolation, NKJV

While certainly this isn't something that we would want God to do, it does show that God is limited in what things he can do. In this case he reaches a constraint only on account of him also having other constraints, such as the character he is to display. But nonetheless, he can't both lie and also display his true character.

In a more tangible example, in the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prayed to God asking that the crucifixion be avoided if that could be possible.

Matthew 26:39: He went a little farther and fell on His face, and prayed, saying, "O My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will." NKJV

He did this twice, but God showed that it wasn't going to be possible to fulfil his purpose without the death of his son, and so the events of the night proceeded. While God has the full capability in carrying out his plans, there are some elements that are pivotal to those plans and God has no alternative but to do them.

God's Capability

Does this mean to say that God isn't omnipotent and that he can't really do everything? It raises the question of what the Bible really says on this aspect. Sometimes it's taken as an affront to even ask the question and go looking for what God actually says about his power, as if doing so is a question of doubt to his authority. However, God has written his word to us so that we do know him.

However, categorical statements of the full extent of God's power aren't actually all that common in the Bible. Perhaps the strongest comes from when an angel appeared to Mary to tell of the birth of Jesus. The angel spoke of how Mary would become pregnant as a virgin, and Mary questioned how that could happen. The response was to say that God could certainly do it, and pointed to the pregnancy of Elizabeth as an example of his power,

Luke 1:36: "Now indeed, Elizabeth your relative has also conceived a son in her old age; and this is now the sixth month for her who was called barren. 37. "For with God nothing will be impossible." NKJV

This is a clear statement that there's nothing that God can't do. However, it is still worth considering just what information was meant to be conveyed in that statement. Some possibilities for misunderstanding include if it is contextual and relating to tangible creations, or whether the original language includes measure of hyperbole when cast against modern language and scientific thought. The context is referring to the capability of carrying out promises. It's clear that the Bible states God is always able to carry out the promises he makes.

A similar example appears in a speech given by Jesus when talking about wealth,

Mark 10:25: "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." 26 And they were greatly astonished, saying among themselves, "Who then can be saved?" 27. But Jesus looked at them and said, "With men it is impossible, but not with God; for with God all things are possible." NKJV

In this case, there is already significant hyperbole in the camel analogy, but similar observations apply to this as the previous passage. Similarly, Genesis also expresses very similar ideas regarding the promise of a child to Abraham when a natural birth seemed impossible,

Genesis 18:14: "Is anything too hard for the LORD? At the appointed time I will return to you, according to the time of life, and Sarah shall have a son." NKJV

Other indications of God's strength appear when he speaks of how he influences the nations,

Jeremiah 32:26: Then the word of the LORD came to Jeremiah, saying, 27. "Behold, I am the LORD, the God of all flesh. Is there anything too hard for Me? 28. "Therefore thus says the LORD: 'Behold, I will give this city into the hand of the Chaldeans, into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, and he shall take it. NKJV

Daniel 4:35: All the inhabitants of the earth are reputed as nothing; He does according to His will in the army of heaven And among the inhabitants of the earth. No one can restrain His hand Or say to Him, "What have You done?" NKJV

The word “omnipotent” itself doesn't generally appear in the Bible. The King James translation includes it once in Revelation 19:6,

Revelation 19:6: And I heard as it were the voice of a great multitude, and as the voice of many waters, and as the voice of mighty thunderings, saying, Alleluia: for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth. KJV

The Greek word here for “omnipotent” is translated as “almighty” through the rest of Revelation.

The Distinction

The question of the extent of God's power inherently comes down to a question of just what is included in “everything.” There can be a distinction between the things of reality, and the things in our imaginations and theories. Just because God's power is greater than we can imagine, it doesn't necessarily mean that everything we imagine can be done. We build an arbitrary construct in our minds, and then may feel it is denying power or glory to God if somehow he doesn't match our theoretical framework. Consequently, we may make irrational demands on our God.

This process happened in the 3rd and 4th centuries AD. At the time, the emerging church was grappling with how to express the greatness of Jesus. They rightly wanted to magnify and glorify Jesus for who he was and what he'd done. Each time someone imagined something more grand for the position of Jesus, it was felt that had to be accepted, or it was depriving him of glory in not doing so. Eventually that process led to the conclusion that Jesus was God himself. However, in doing so, this denied Jesus of the true greatness that came out of his humanity. The magnitude and relevance of Jesus' life, death and resurrection is something we only see when in the context that he was a man like us, and not a God. So in that situation, adding glory via an artificial construct actually took the glory away from what he'd done.

There's a human process of building up theoretical mechanisms and then feeling they need to be true because they apply greater power to Jesus, or to God. However, by taking this path, we risk taking away the very richness of the relationship that we have with Jesus in his sharing humanity with us.

God's Need for Humanity

To ascribe the idea of a complete and unconditional capability to God also affects the value that we, as humans, have to him. If God can achieve his purpose with out any constraints, then he has no need for any particular response from humanity. Alternatively, the knowledge that we are needed as part of his purpose adds a greater meaning to our life. Our choices actually make a difference to him, rather than he being a machine that gets exactly what he wants regardless of any of those choices from the free will. God has made it clear that he does value his human creation, and really does gain satisfaction from our behaviour and salvation,

2 Peter 3:9: The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance. NKJV

True Greatness

Much of Job 28 is of God demonstrating to Job of the wondrous things that he can do, and how they far exceed human capabilities,

Job 38:4: " Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell Me, if you have understanding. 5. Who determined its measurements? Surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? NKJV

This chapter sets out a series of examples that show the intricate knowledge and control that God has over his creation. The picture set here is of a God far greater than one that can simply “do anything.” He has a relationship with his creation, and works in it as part of it. He not only has the capacity to set wheels in motion, but shows an even greater capacity in being able to realise his plans despite our exertions of our free will.

We have a great and mighty God. He has created so much that we can't understand. The course of our lives is in his hands, and he has an ownership over the world. Does it mean that he can do any concept we can imagine? No. Does it matter? No. He's the Almighty God, and can provide us with all that we need, and fulfil his promises that are beyond our expectations.