Thursday Roundup (11/17/16)

A brief programming note: I’m going to be teaching a free three-evening online seminar in early December on reasons for trusting the Gospel accounts. We’ll look at whether the Gospels bear the marks of accurate history, how we have a clear picture of what the original manuscripts said, and why the early church chose the 27 books that make up our New Testament canon. Click here for more information or to register. If you think friends might be interested, I would greatly appreciate if you shared the link!

Today’s video takes a careful look at a perennial favorite question of skeptics: If God is all-powerful, can he create a rock too heavy for him to lift? The Answers for Ambassadors podcast continues my examination of Dawkins’ arguments that we cannot trust the Gospel accounts, and the links of the week range from joy to missions to, of course, Donald Trump.

(If you receive these posts by email and aren’t seeing the video and podcast, just click the “Thursday Roundup” title to view the original post on my site.)

“He therefore is the devout man who lives no longer to his own will, or the way and spirit of the world, but to the sole will of God, who considers God in everything, who serves God in everything, who makes all the parts of his common life parts of piety by doing everything in the name of God and under such rules as are conformable to His glory.”
~ William Law

Read moreThursday Roundup (11/17/16)

Could Jesus have sinned?

A discussion after church today raised the question whether the possibility of sin entailed, in itself and apart from any actual evil, a diminution of goodness. The question led me to suggest that Jesus could have sinned (suggesting, if true, that perfection is not incompatible with the possibility of sin), a position which seemed in retrospect to require further consideration.

Could Jesus have sinned? One can begin by stipulating that God is incapable of sin (e.g. Hebrews 6:18, James 1:13), but even this incapacity raises some interesting questions. I cannot fly, see through walls, or live a perfect life, because something limits me–whether external constraints or internal deficiency. Obviously, such a definition of “cannot” does not apply to a perfect, omnipotent God. Perhaps the closest human analogy to the divine incapacity for sin is “will not,” rather than “cannot”?

Read moreCould Jesus have sinned?

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.)

In defense of the Free Will Theodicy

I recently read Winfried Corduan’s No Doubt About It and was surprised by his argument that the Free Will Theodicy is invalid. (In a nutshell, this response to the problem of evil argues that moral evil exists in the world because God granted human beings the freedom to make significant moral choices.) Corduan argues, “The idea of freedom prohibits God’s directly influencing our choices, but there is another way of making sure of the desired outcome, namely by limiting the circumstances within which we choose.”

Corduan begins his argument by making the legitimate point that we do not have absolute freedom because our choices are constrained by external circumstances. “I cannot sensibly choose to be a world-class oboe player or the olympic gold medalist in butterfly swimming; I just do not have what it takes. I cannot reasonably choose to spend next semester on Mars: the laws of the universe and the policies of my university will not permit it. In short, pure unbounded freedom of choice does not exist. If we do choose freely, it is still within the limit of options given us.”

Because our choices are constrained by our situation, Corduan argues that God “could have arranged our available choices in such a way that we would be free but would only freely choose to obey Him.” As an example, he suggests that God could have created the Garden of Eden without the tree of temptation, thereby avoiding giving Adam and Eve the opportunity to rebel against him.

I believe a twofold response to these assertions is possible. First, Corduan misses a significant element of the Free Will Theodicy. The emphasis should not only be on moral freedom as intrinsically good, but also on free moral choices rightly made as a means for spiritual development. As James writes, “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:2-4). Can courage come in the absence of danger? Patience or hope in the absence of trials? Forgiveness without sin? Even love itself is best cultivated when directed towards one who has wronged us (Matthew 5:43-47).

The decision to choose the right when confronted with a genuine choice is the only way to cultivate many of the greatest virtues. For a perfect being – God – such moral development is not necessary. However, God in his wisdom chose to create mankind capable of moral growth, and such growth appears to only be possible in the presence of real temptation.

This is not to say that sin is necessary for moral development. One need not ever play the coward in order to be courageous, but courage in the absence of danger is no great virtue, nor will it create a more courageous creature. Adam and Eve did not need to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in order to grow morally, but they did need to be able to choose not to eat.

With this in mind, it seems that a universe so arranged that mankind was free to choose, but only from an array of virtuous choices, would miss the point of free moral will. Further, however, I believe Corduan’s position has a second and even more fundamental flaw, because the possibility of evil is inherent to the creation of a morally free, self-aware being.

Satan did not need a Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in order to fall. All he needed were two things: himself and God. As soon as a being with free moral will is aware of itself as not-God, it can choose to value itself above God. And that is evil. If God’s only act of creation was to craft a disembodied mind floating in nothingness, that mind could not not be capable to sin if it was (1) morally free and (2) aware of itself (3) as not-God.

Because the nature of evil makes it logically impossible for a morally free, self-aware creature to exist in any set of circumstances without the possibilty of sin, even an omnipotent, omniscient God could not create such a situation. (See “Things God Cannot Do”.) God could choose not to create. He could choose not to create a self-aware creature. He could choose not to grant that self-aware creature free moral will. But he could not choose to create a self-aware creature with free moral will that could not sin, any more than he could create a circle that was square, or an inanimate object that was alive.

Because the real possibility of sin is necessary for true moral freedom, and because creation of a morally free, self-aware being necessarily makes evil possible, Corduan’s response does not adequately refute the Free Will Theodicy.

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.