Reasonable Answers For Everyday Thinkers
The Paradox of the Stone
This is actually a very old argument against God’s existence that came from the medieval period when people were trying to understand the concept of omnipotence. If God is all powerful he should be able to do anything. Right? What are the hidden assumptions in the ‘Paradox of the Stone’? Lets take a look.
Omnipotence means that God can do anything that power can accomplish. This is an attribute of God’s nature.
Genesis 18:14 “Is anything to hard for the Lord?”
Jeremiah 32:17 “Ah, Sovereign Lord, you have made the heavens and the earth by your great power and outstretched arm. Nothing is too hard for you.”
Here we see that nothing is too difficult for God. But how do we reconcile other scripture verses that say that God cannot do certain things1?
- God can’t get tired.
Have you not known? Have you not heard? The everlasting God, the Lord, the Creator of the ends of the earth, neither faints nor is weary.
- God can’t take on a job he can’t handle.
Ah, Lord God! Behold, you have made the heavens and the earth by your great power and outstretched arm. There is nothing too hard for you.
- God can’t be unholy.
And one cried to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!”
- God can’t be prejudiced.
In truth I perceive that God shows no partiality. But in every nation whoever fears him and works righteousness is accepted by him.
- God can’t break a promise.
My covenant I will not break, nor alter the word that has gone out of my lips.
- God can’t remember sins he’s chosen to forget.
I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake; and I will not remember your sins.
- God can’t make a loser.
Now thanks be to God who always leads us in triumph in Christ.
—2 Corinthians 2:14
- God can’t abandon you.
Be strong and of good courage, do not fear nor be afraid of them; for the Lord your God, he is the one who goes with you. He will not leave you nor forsake you.
- God can’t stop thinking about you.
How precious also are your thoughts to me, O God! How great is the sum of them! If I should count them, they would be more in number than the sand; when I awake, I am still with you.
- God can’t stop loving you.
Yes, I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore with lovingkindness I have drawn you.
So, can God do anything? This might be a lay understanding of God’s omnipotence but it quickly becomes problematic. A more carful definition proves helpful.
A contemporary philosopher Richard Swinburne describes God’s omnipotence as follows.
“God is omnipotent in the sense (roughly) that he can do whatever it is logically possible that he do. The qualification in the last clause is important. There are some apparent states of affairs, the description of which involves a logical contradiction”
This is to say, that God cannot contradict his own character. This understanding is helpful because there is no possible world2
in which God can make a square-circle, for instance. The concept of a round object with no sides is in direct contradiction to a four sided object, hence it is logically fallacious. With this helpful definition we can see that God is not limited in his ability simply because the logic is problematic. With this new definition the problem goes away, but now lets look at the hidden assumption within the question.
Can I beat myself at an arm wrestling match?
The question, “can God make a stone so big that he can’t lift it” is an attempt to attack God’s character, by suggesting an internal contradiction with God’s omnipotence; and therefore, the challenger would say, God cannot exist. The question is structured in such a way that, if God is successful – he would lose. Greg Koukl, from Stand to Reason, points out “the question treats God as if he were two instead of one.” We can compare the strength of two individuals. Once we construct an internal comparison, pitting one of God’s attributes against another of God’s attributes, that is where this question becomes nonsensical.
The Paradox of the Stone is nonsense because God cannot do anything that is logically contradictory to his character. This accounts for all the scriptures about what God can and cannot do, without contradiction. If logic was not an obstacle then yes, God could make a stone so big that he couldn’t lift…and then he would lift it. Either way the question fails and does nothing to attack God’s omnipotence.
2 Today, possible worlds play a central role in many debates in philosophy, including especially debates over the Zombie Argument, and physicalism and supervenience in the philosophy of mind. Many debates in the philosophy of religion have been reawakened by the use of possible worlds. Intense debate has also emerged over the ontological status of possible worlds, provoked especially by David Lewis’s defense of modal realism, the doctrine that talk about “possible worlds” is best explained in terms of innumerable, really existing worlds beyond the one we live in. The fundamental question here is: given that modal logic works, and that some possible-worlds semantics for modal logic is correct, what has to be true of the world, and just what are these possible worlds that we range over in our interpretation of modal statements? Lewis argued that what we range over are real, concrete worlds that exist just as unequivocally as our actual world exists, but that are distinguished from the actual world simply by standing in no spatial, temporal, or causal relations with the actual world. (On Lewis’s account, the only “special” property that the actual world has is a relational one: that we are in it. This doctrine is called “the indexicality of actuality”: “actual” is a merely indexical term, like “now” and “here”.) Others, such as Robert Adams and William Lycan, reject Lewis’s picture as metaphysically extravagant, and suggest in its place an interpretation of possible worlds as consistent, maximally complete sets of descriptions of or propositions about the world, so that a “possible world” is conceived of as a complete description of a way the world could be – rather than a world that is that way. (Lewis describes their position, and similar positions such as those advocated by Alvin Plantinga and Peter Forrest, as “ersatz modal realism”, arguing that such theories try to get the benefits of possible worlds semantics for modal logic “on the cheap”, but that they ultimately fail to provide an adequate explanation.) Saul Kripke, in Naming and Necessity, took explicit issue with Lewis’s use of possible worlds semantics, and defended a stipulative account of possible worlds as purely formal (logical) entities rather than either really existent worlds or as some set of propositions or descriptions. UP