Can God make a rock so big he can’t lift it?
Or, How to properly speak of God as a Christian.
This is partly a letter to my 14-year old self who was somewhat troubled by not knowing how to answer this question. Here’s how, young friend.
God doesn’t just make stuff. Natural theology, theology informed by science, has shown that when God creates (as he always and continually does), he does so not by instantaneously making things appear out of thin nihilo, as if by magic. Rather, he creates by establishing the original physical preconditions and then letting things freely appear in accordance with those laws. So while God certainly is the creator of all things, including rocks, it’s not clear to what extent he can be said to be directly responsible for the form those things take, which would include their size. The question assumes a problematic, if not blatantly wrong, notion of God’s creative action and is therefore nonsensical.
The question is also nonsensical because it forgets that God is not a thing in and of this world, underlain the constraints of physical reality that regulate the relationships between things and makes lifting possible. In other words, God doesn’t have arms with which to lift or fail to lift rocks. That is not the nature of his being, nor is it the nature of his relationship with the physical universe.
On the other hand, while God is certainly spirit and therefore immaterial, he did take on human form in Jesus and therefore was, at one point, underlain those physical constraints that make lifting possible. So in relation to the incarnation, the question is no longer nonsensical. And here the answer is clearly yes. Yes, there were plenty of rocks too big for God to lift. There’s nothing – no gospel record nor theological requirement – that makes this problematic. On the contrary, the inner logic of the incarnation, its soteriological necessity, one might say, requires the opposite to be true: For Jesus to be the saviour of human kind, he must be one of us. And that means being limited like one of us. Limited in a lot of respects, but in this particular context, specifically in physical strength. Certainly, Jesus had special abilities, but brute strength was not one of them. Only pagans would find that fact problematic; not those who worship the crucified Messiah. So yes, there were, when God was a human being, rocks too big for him to lift.
The question of whether God can create a rock so big he can’t lift it is, of course, asked as a presumed critique of divine omnipotence. “Ha!”, the critical questioner implies by his question. “You say your God is all-powerful, but here’s something he cannot do!” As such, it’s also a critique of the logical coherence of the Christian conception of God, which in turn implies that God may not exist at all. God is only an idea and a bad, self-contradictory one at that.
Christians need not be disturbed by the apparent demonstration of God’s lack of omnipotence. Christians don’t worship a God whose power is simply limitless. God is not almighty. He is mighty to save. Which is to say, God’s power is never mere power. It’s power, directed by God’s most fundamental attribute or perfection, his love. It’s not arbitrary. It doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s God’s power – and so, it is always used in service of his love. Christians are by no means required to believe that God can do anything. We are required to believe that God has done, does and will do a number of things that entail a huge amount of power – things like creating the world and continually sustaining it, kenotically becoming human, healing the sick, sacrificially dying on the cross, rising from the dead, defeating evil and redeeming those who believe, listening to and answering prayers, judging sin and forgiving it, establishing an eschatological hope that one day will be realised, and so on. But that does not require us to conceive of God’s power as literally unrestrained, able to do anything. On the contrary, God’s power is certainly not unrestrained. It’s very much restrained. Restrained by his very being, which most fundamentally is love.
Or to put it another way: What Christians are required to believe about God’s power must always be determined by who he is and what he does. Concrete revelation, not abstract speculation is the name of the game, in other words. Theology, not philosophy. Not that there’s anything wrong with abstract philosophical speculation. It’s a fun thing to do. Who of us hasn’t had late night discussions about silly-serious questions like the one at hand? But when it comes to the question of what our Christian faith requires of us theologically, the question must be answered in reference to the specific content of God’s revelation of himself in history. We are not warranted to go beyond that revelation. Or, if we do, we must be very careful about calling it Christian theology.
So when we speak of God’s power, what we say must reference to God’s being and action, who God is and what he does. Is there anything, in reference to God’s being and action, that requires us to defend God’s power as unrestrained, that God can do anything? No. The only power we are required to defend as Christians is God’s saving power. Which means that the questions designed to prick holes in divine omnipotence by supposedly demonstrating how it contradicts itself should not trouble us. We have no interest in omnipotence. We have interest only in soteriopotence (yeah, I just made up that word).