By Vexen Crabtree 2012
Omnipotency is the state of being "all-powerful". In monotheistic religions such as Christianity and Islam God is said to be omnipotent many times in their scriptures. Omnipotency implies other super-powers too: if you are all-powerful then you have the means to instantly uncover any and every fact, so, it also implies omniscience. It also requires omniscience.
However omnipotency has such theological and philosophical difficulties that it seems to be a self-contradictory and impossible concept. God itself is constrained by the laws of logic and rationality - it can't make a square circle or create an object that it can't destroy. Most people cede that "omnipotent" means only the ability to do any logical thing1,2. Indeed, in order to create anything at all then you must first be able to think rationally, in an ordered way, and therefore, to be subject to logical cause-and-effect3. Therefore, omnipotent beings can't be the creators of the fundamental laws. Omnipotency contradicts being the "first cause" of all reality. And if an all-powerful being created pain, suffering, the cycle of life (wherein most living beings must kill and eat other beings to survive) whilst it has the all-powerful ability to create eternal happiness for everyone, then, such a being cannot be benevolent (morally good). Millennia of theological and philosophical debate has not resulted in these contradictions being resolved.
To have the ability to do anything, you need to know everything. You can't change reality (for example, by making a cup appear out of thin air) without knowing the precise and accurate detail of how every atom and subatomic particle in a cup should be positioned and the detail of how every intrinsic force of nature works. Omnipotency and omniscience go together. Omnipotency requires omniscience. To put it another way: If you try to raise a person from the dead, but you don't have precise and perfectly accurate details on how the neurology of their brain has decayed, and how to restore it, then, you can't accomplish your wish. You are therefore not all-powerful. Even simple things like making the sun appear still in the sky, requires incredibly knowledge of everyone's individual perspective, and how to cushion an entire planet from the planet-destroying effects of suddenly having it stop spinning. Omnipotence without omniscience is a dangerous farce.
There are some commonly stated limitations to the very concept of omnipotency, meaning that some qualifications need to be made against the idea of an all-powerful God:
Irrational and illogical actions such as creating a "round square" or making 2+2=5, appear to be impossible even for an all-powerful God. So many say that "all-powerful" means only the ability to do all logical non-contradictory actions.4,2
Self-limiting actions such as making itself non-existent, or, removing its own power of omnipotency, are often said to be impossible for an all-powerful being. If it chose to make itself unable to do a particular action then it would be a simple gesture for this being to re-instate its power. For example, if the all-powerful God knows that in the year 2050 it will cause an Earthquake, but, in the year 2040 it removes its own power to cause natural disasters, it can of course do two things, (1) use its omnipotency to give itself the power again, or (2) in 2030 to jump ahead in time and do it before it removed its own ability. Also if such a being decides "I shall for all time not have the ability to do something", then, it can only do that action if it does have the ability to do it. This self-negation causes an impossible time-continuum contradiction. It thusly seems impossible for it to stop itself from performing any action.
There can only be one omnipotent being, otherwise, their two independent wills would limit each other's power. By definition, both would have to "get their own way" all the time in order to continue to be all-powerful. In other words, they could never effectively disagree. Therefore, an omnipotent being can't create any new, independent, omnipotent mind.
Finally, the most damning limitations:
God Cannot be Responsible for Creating Logic Itself:
In order to create, to think, God's thoughts must be more than random. To create the universe and its laws, God must be able to think logically. If it can't think logically, then, the laws of the universe were simply random, and the Universe might as well have been self-created in an atheistic manner. In other words, for God to exist, God's thoughts must have always been ordered in a logical manner otherwise God could never have created order from chaos.
Kepler, one of the great minds in the history of science, came to similar conclusions about geometry, but didn't go as far as to say that it preceded God:
“Geometry existed before the Creation. It is co-eternal with the mind of God... Geometry provided God with a model for the Creation... Geometry is God Himself.”
In "Cosmos" by Carl Sagan (1995)
Kepler was assumedly counting mathematics and the general rules of the universe as 'geometry'.
This means that logic is a precursor to God. Logic, with its simple relations and rules that lets thought itself be ordered, must have existed independently of God's creative power. God could not have created the logic because requires logical thoughts to do any meaningful creating. See: The Universe Could Not Have Been Created by God: The Failure of First Cause Arguments.
An all-powerful god cannot be benevolent. Responsible for making every aspect of evil and suffering possible and for creating the long chain of cause and effect that results in disasters and influences people to choose wrongly, god is so absolutely responsible for all evil and pain that it renders it amoral at best, and at worst, immoral. See: The Problem of Evil: Why Would a Good God Create Suffering?.
These limitations on omnipotency have built up to form quite a list of things an all-powerful being cannot do. "All-powerful" can't mean what it says in any simple way. Omnipotency is best not described as "the ability to do anything", rather as "the ability to do the maximum number of possible actions within the confines of logical impossibilities and self-limitations, except the creation of other beings that are also super-powerful, but, this power cannot co-exist simultaneously with the power of omniscience (being all-knowing) and free will nor benevolence. Also, omnipotency depends upon the ability to think straight and therefore requires the pre-existence of logic; ergo an omnipotent being cannot be the reality-creating first cause of existence".
The resultant being, if all-powerful, is the shallow wreckage of an amoral entity, bound by such severe limitations on agency that ultimate creative power, moral agency and free will are all removed. An omnipotent being is simply impossible - the closest thing that could exist is an amoral very-powerful automaton.
If God is all-powerful and all-good, it would have created a universe in the same way it created heaven: with free will for all, no suffering and no evil. But evil and suffering exist. Therefore God does not exist, is not all-powerful or is not benevolent (good)6. Such arguments have been used by many philosophers as evidence against belief in god7,8. A theodicy is an attempt to explain why a good god would have created evil and suffering. The most popular defence is that it is so Humans could have free will. However the entire universe and the natural world is filled with suffering, violence and destruction so any Humanity-centric explanation does not seem to work.”
Primitive gods could literally and physically fight against evil. But as philosophy and science taught us the true depth of words like 'creator god' and 'creation', and we understood more and more of the psychological, incidental and mechanistic causes of apparent 'evil', it became quite obvious that the whole system was designed with the possibility for 'evil' in its very fabric. "To increase the power of an anthropomorphic deity until it is absolute is to increase his responsibility until he is amoral"9. Omnipotency is incompatible with benevolence.
This question is often cited as a disproof of omnipotency. If God can't create such a rock, then, God can't do anything, so is not all-powerful. If God can create a rock it can't lift, then, it is not true that God can lift any rock, therefore, God is still not all-powerful. However the question is merely a trick. Consider what it means in practical terms. God can lift an infinite amount. The question is saying, therefore, "Can God create a rock with a weight greater than infinity?". Of course, this question is logically absurd. The question is wrong and illusory and depends upon an illogical concept of "greater than infinity".
Islam: The Qur'an frequently states that God 'has power over all things' and 'is able to do all things'. I know of no verses in the Quran that contradict this. Here are examples from the first five surahs of the Qur'an: 2:20,2:109; 3:189; 4:85,149; 5:17,5:19,5:40, and 5:120.
Christianity: Unlike the Qur'an which asserts constantly, clearly and unambiguously that god is all-powerful, the Bible contains very little direct commentary on the scope of God's power. Verses on that topic are mostly indirect. We can infer that God is all-powerful because Genesis says God creates the world and the heavens in 6 days, etc. But this isn't necessary omnipotence: the fundamental laws of physics, the dimensions including time, etc, are all important parts of creation but not mentioned by the Bible. The God of the Bible is clearly very powerful and creative, but, is not for certain all-powerful.
|God is All-Powerful||God is Limited|
Indirect evidence / commentary from Humans:
Can God Lie? Is God Always Truthful in the Christian Bible? (many verses state that it cannot lie).
God Can't Be Tempted:
The Crucifiction Facade
God is Susceptible to Magic: After using its power to afflict Saul, God is repelled through (ritualistic?) harp playing:
|Can God Defeat Iron Chariots?|
Judges 4:13-16: Sisera gathered nine hundred chariots, but the LORD defeated them for Deborah and Barak, whose 10,000 men then killed all of Sisera's men.
Judges 1:19: "And the LORD was with Judah; and he drave out the inhabitants of the mountain; but could not drive out the inhabitants of the valley, because they had chariots of iron."
Plenty of other religions hold up a belief in an all-powerful deity. In Bahá'í, for example, see Kitab-i-Asmá 17:11.
Any powerful, unearthly, being could appear to us to be omnipotent. It could trick minds, perform tricks, even cause floods and inspire books to be written, but, we would have no way of knowing if it was truly all-powerful or merely very powerful. Arthur C Clarke famously wrote 'Any technology, sufficiently advanced, will seem like magic' and likewise, any particularly powerful being can seem as God to us. Assuming that God is all-powerful simply because it is said to have facilitated miracles is not a sensible extrapolation.
Current edition: 2012 Sep 04
Last Modified: 2018 Jan 10
Originally published 1999 Apr 13
Parent page: There is No God: Theological, Philosophical and Logical Problems of Theism
All #tags used on this page - click for more:
The Bible (NIV). The NIV is the best translation for accuracy whilst maintaining readability. Multiple authors, a compendium of multiple previously published books. I prefer to take quotes from the NIV but where I quote the Bible en masse I must quote from the KJV because it is not copyrighted, whilst the NIV is. Book Review.
(1984) God And The New Physics. Paperback book. Penguin 2006 edition. Davies is a Professor in theoretical physics who has published ground-breaking research.
(2016) "A Biblical-Theological Response to the Problem of Theodicy in the Context of the Modem Criticism of Religion". Published in the Evangelical Review of Theology (2016) 40:3, 247-263.
James, William. (1842-1910)
(1902) The Varieties of Religious Experience. Paperback book. Subtitled: "A Study in Human Nature". 5th (1971 fifth edition) edition. Originally published 1960. From the Gifford Lectures delivered at Edinburgh 1901-1902. Quotes also obtained from Amazon digital Kindle 2015 Xist Publishing edition. Book Review.
(1995) Cosmos. Paperback book. Originally published 1981 by McDonald & Co. Current version published by Abacus.
Stenger, Prof. Victor J.
(2007) God, the Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist. Published by Prometheus Books, NY, USA. Stenger is a Nobel-prize winning physicist, and a skeptical philosopher whose research is strictly rational and evidence-based.