Free Choices, God’s Sovereignty, and Apparent Contradictions

I was talking with a group of high school students last year about making wise decisions as a Christian. As I planned what I would say, I kept wanting to discuss how our ability to make meaningful choices can coexist with God’s control over all things, but I suppressed the urge to wander off into philosophical weeds that the audience would find boring and abstract. The evening of the event, I spoke briefly and then opened things up for discussion. One of the first questions was about how our ability to make meaningful choices can coexist with God’s control over all things. As was the next question. And the next. Apparently, there are a lot of us poking around in this particular clump of philosophical weeds.

Thoughtful Christians throughout history have struggled to reconcile these two plain yet paradoxical teachings of Scripture. First, the Bible is quite clear that God controls all things. Proverbs 21:1 says, “The king’s heart is like channels of water in the hand of the Lord; He turns it wherever He wishes.” In Daniel 4:35b, Nebuchadnezzar confesses, “He does according to His will in the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of earth; and no one can ward off His hand or say to Him, ‘What have You done?'” Or consider the many detailed prophecies that were fulfilled centuries later. Why do God’s “best laid schemes” enjoy somewhat greater certainty than those of mice and men? One hundred percent accuracy in predicting the future is only possible for One who controls all the variables necessary to ensure the outcome He promised.

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The logic of faith

God uses faith “to shake us out of our logical thinking,” declared the pastor at a local church I visited a few weeks ago. I recently heard another pastor explain that we can only grow in our faith if we stop listening to our reason: either we listen to our reason or we listen to God.

I think any Christian can relate to the basic idea being expressed here. Faith often demands of us things that do not “make sense” in the colloquial sense of the phrase. Military strategists may disagree about the best tactics for an outnumbered insurgency with limited weaponry battling an overwhelming occupying force, but as a general rule they would agree that dismissing 98.7 percent of your manpower is not a brilliant first step; so of course that’s exactly what God told Gideon to do. Building a floating castle in a land without rain makes little sense, and marching in circles tooting horns is an unconventional approach for capturing your region’s most powerful city. But that’s exactly what God commanded.

So it is certainly accurate to say that faith rarely “makes sense” in human terms. But if we go beyond this point to conclude that faith is illogical or somehow opposed to reason, we end up in an error with potentially serious consequences.

Because, indeed, faith is at its core entirely logical. The logic of faith is deductive, and begins with a simple premise: God is faithful. When Abraham sacrificed Isaac, it was an entirely logical thing to do. He knew God. God had promised, “In Isaac your descendants shall be called,” so “He considered that God is able to raise people even from the dead” and prepared to sacrifice his son. The whole thing reads rather like a syllogism: If God allows Isaac to be destroyed, He will have broken His word. God cannot break His word. So God will not allow Isaac to be destroyed, all suggestions to the contrary notwithstanding. If, instead, Abraham had merely woken up one morning and decided it would please God if he set out to kill his son, that would have been decidedly illogical. And that would not have been faith.

Why did Gideon dismiss all but 300 men? Why did Noah build the arc? Why did Joshua march around Jericho? Because God told them to do so, and they knew that God is faithful. Had any of them acted without the assurance of God’s command and of His faithfulness, that would not have been logical. And that would not have been faith.

Yet logic is not the heart of faith. If it was, then a purely rational, emotionless artificial intelligence of the sort sometimes imagined by science fiction would be an exemplar of faith, when in fact such a creature could never actually know faith. It is interesting that faith is never mentioned in connection with angels, beings to which the Church has long attributed pure reason. It would seem that faith is irrelevant to a creature which sees things as they truly are, for whom no contrary passion or momentary appearance can shake the knowledge and assurance of the I Am. For faith is born out of a limited perspective; it grows out of the words “all suggestions to the contrary notwithstanding.”

The writer of Hebrews refers to “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” We may take it as a given that these “things” do in fact exist; otherwise we would be defining madness rather than faith. We may even take it as a given that those of whom faith is expected have good reason to believe in the existence of these things. But knowing, for the queer mixture of dust and spirit which is a human being, is not always enough.

Numbers 14 records God’s appearance to the Israelites at the height of their panic over the strength of the country they had been commanded to subdue. They were literally about to stone Joshua and Caleb for urging the people to trust in God and carry on, when “the glory of the Lord appeared in the tent of meeting to all the sons of Israel,” declaring himself ready to dispossess and destroy them. (It it worth noting that theophanies are rarely comfortable. This one perhaps even less so than most.) God’s complaint against the Israelites was simple: “How long will this people spurn Me? And how long will they not believe in Me, despite all the signs which I have performed in their midst?” (emphasis added). These were the same people who had just witnessed a series of ten plagues that would resound through Middle Eastern history for centuries (I Samuel 4:8), who had just watched a sea open up before them and then return to consume the world’s mightiest military in their wake, and they were completely unmanned by a walled city full of unusually tall people.

A similar charge underscores Jesus’ question in Matthew 8 when he asks his panic-stricken disciples, “Why are you afraid, you men of little faith?” as he calms the stormy sea. These were men who had ample reason to trust in Him. Without even leaving Matthew 8, we see Jesus cleanse a leper, heal a Roman centurion’s paralyzed servant, and restore Peter’s mother-in-law’s health. And then he gets into a boat, the wind blows, and his disciples straightway forget all this and are terrified by a sea full of unusually tall waves.

We might laugh at the obviousness of the error, were it not for an uncomfortable awareness of how easily our own attention is drawn away from “things not seen” by unusually tall things of one sort or another. We, like Abraham, Gideon, Noah, Joshua, the Israelites, and the disciples, have every reason to believe that God is “able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think.” But all we can see is the fact that things aren’t working out, or it’s taking too long (Father Time is remarkably tall sometimes), or the task is too big for us or will hurt too much. And we forget what we know, that God is faithful. Faith is nothing if not logical, but faith is far more than logic. True faith is found in holding fast to things unseen, clinging to what is real even when the truth feels far less substantial than the tall and dancing shadows that surround us.

Can God create a rock too heavy for him to lift?

In a nutshell: No.

This question and others like it (“Can God beat himself up in a fight?”) are clever attempts to prove that the Christian notion of divine omnipotence is inherently contradictory, but on closer examination they prove unpersuasive.

Rephrasing the question is a helpful first step in understanding why we can safely answer it in the negative. As an omnipotent being, God can do anything that is intrinsically possible, a category that certainly includes moving a rock or any other created thing. The attribute of “movable by an omnipotent being” is as inherent in a rock as is “hard” or “composed of minerals.” (This assertion does not rest on Christian doctrine. It is inherent in the definition of omnipotence, regardless of whether or not an omnipotent being even exists.)

There can be no such thing as a rock that is not composed of minerals, because that would be a rock that is not a rock. It is a logical impossibility. Similarly, there can be no such thing as a rock that is immovable by an omnipotent being; even if no omnipotent being actually existed, we could still safely say that if such a being existed, it could move any existent rock.

With this in mind, we can rephrase the question above: “Can God create an object that an omnipotent being could lift [a rock] that is too heavy for an omnipotent being to lift?” Like the inquiry whether God could create a square circle, when properly understood this question devolves into incoherent nonsense, allowing us to answer confidently, “No, God cannot create a rock he cannot lift.” (For more on this topic, see Things God cannot do.)

Things God cannot do

One of the most interesting speeches I assign to the students in my Intro to Logic and Rhetoric class is the question, “Does God’s omnipotence mean he can do absolutely anything?” Both Scripture and Christian tradition respond in the negative. There are, of course, several Bible verses that indicate things God cannot do:

  • He cannot lie (Hebrews 6:18).
  • He cannot be tempted by evil, or tempt anyone (James 1:13).
  • He cannot disown himself (II Timothy 2:13).

We could summarize these propositions by saying that God cannot do evil. There is also a second set of things God cannot do: he cannot do illogic. God cannot create a square circle, or make 2+2 equal 5. He cannot create another infinite being (because an infinite being that was created is logically contradictory). He cannot create nothing (since something must be created, if creation occurs).

Our initial response to this assertion may be a feeling that God’s sovereignty is diminished. After all, does this mean that the laws of logic constrain God? Certainly not, any more than the earlier list of things God cannot do implies that the laws of morality bind him.

If we say, “God cannot do bleh, bleh, bleh,” are we offending his sovereignty? No, because “bleh, bleh, bleh,” is simply a series of sounds without meaning. It is nonsense, an empty phrase. If we think about it, the idea of a square circle or a created infinite being is equally nonsensical. Our mind instinctively assumes it must be meaningful since the phrase consists of two words which both have meaning, but when we apply the modifier “square” to the idea of “circle,” we fall abruptly into meaningless. A square circle is a series of sounds that refers to… nothing.

The common thread that binds these two assertions – that God cannot do evil or illogic – is the fact that God’s omnipotence operates according to his nature. God acts morally because his nature is good. God acts logically because his nature is rational. God’s omnipotence means that he is able to do whatever he wills (which is in accordance with who he is), unbound by any external contraints.