What God Cannot Do – Part 6

I did not especially want to get into a discussion about Jesus, the incarnation, the trinity, etc. However, my claim that God cannot suffer or be harmed leads naturally to objections like this one from Lincoln:

God can be hurt. In fact Christianity is based off the fact that God can not only be hurt, but he can die. Jesus, who is God, sacrificed himself for us. This is an act of heroism.

His reasoning goes like this:

1. Jesus suffered.
2. Jesus was harmed.
3. Jesus could suffer and be harmed.
4. Jesus is God.
5. God could suffer and be harmed.

Premise (4) is questionable based on the meaning of the word ‘God’. Something can be God only if it is a person who is (a) always omnipotent, (b) always omniscient, and (c) always perfectly free, thus (4) is true only if Jesus possessed those three properties. But it appears to be false that Jesus possessed all three of these properties, so it follows that Jesus is NOT God:

6. Jesus is a person who was not always omnipotent, or not always omniscient, or not always perfectly free.
7. Something is God only if it is a person who is always omnipotent, and always omniscient, and always perfectly free.
8. Jesus is not God.

So, the dilemma for Lincoln and for other Christian thinkers is this: Was Jesus a divine person (meaning he was always omnipotent, always omniscient, and always perfectly free) or not? If you do claim that Jesus was a divine person, does that claim make sense? Is that claim plausible? If Jesus was not a divine person, then how can Jesus be God, if he was lacking some (or all) of the characteristics used to identify the referent of the proper name ‘God’?

About Bradley Bowen
  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12132821431322748921 LadyAtheist

    If Jesus was God, why couldn't he make the fig tree bear fruit out of season? Why couldn't he pop the nails out of his hands and feet and jump off the cross? Why couldn't he resurrect himself as he was being put into the tomb, yell "neener neener" and then torch the Roman soldiers?

    And we don't have any examples of him healing amputees, either.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/18232172552316701397 Mr. W

    This is actually a subject of hot contention amongst Muslim scholarship, lol. (Believe it or not, we have our own variety of sects!)

    One school of thought, the "Ashari/Matarudi" (predominately in Egypt, the North Africa, parts of Syria and Jordan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and parts of Indonesia and Malaysia) strips God down to a set of characteristics.

    We of the "Athari" school, which is predominately practiced in Saudi Arab, the Arab Gulf countries, and parts of the rest of the world, focuses on the ultimate power in Gods hands. That is, God cannot be limited, as He above and outside of His creation. In which case, He is not bound to the laws of nature which He created, and neither is He inclined to do so (as He has a physical location, above His creation).

    The differences in "aqeedah" (belief), such as that between the Ashari's and Athari's actually affect the way scholars interpret the precedent and scholastic literature of the previous generations, along with the texts used for proofs and evidences.

    An example of such, a scholar from Saudi Arabia would tell you that suicide bombing is completely forbidden. This is because of a verse in the Qur'an where God states that suicide is forbidden.

    A scholar in Egypt, however, may say that because of the situation, a man may involve himself with suicide bombing if he has no other means to fight an enemy.

    Yet on the other hand, a scholar from the Gulf will tell you that Muslims can eat meat slaughtered by Christians and Jews as described in the Qur'an. A scholar from Pakistan will tell you that is forbidden.

    Followers of the "Athari" school rely on the literal meaning of words in their contexts, while the "Ashari" school is comfortable with interpreting it (to a further extent).

    Something that many "commentators" on Islam do not speak about is that in the religion, Muslims are told to (directly from the Qur'an and sunnah) to obey the laws of their land (regardless of religion) and to contribute to the society in meaningful ways. Should a Muslim be unable to practice their religion, then they are to perform a "hijrah"–migrate to a Muslim country or to an area where they can practice their religion. The "Athari" school, because of it's literal understanding of Islam, propagates this, while other schools, due to their numerous interpretations, will advocate, often, for a more "empowered" Muslim community.


    Saudi Arabia +1, Egypt 0

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07559081710058635050 Pulse

    All this demonstrates is that many people have a different definition of God than Swinburne does, an objection that has been raised by readers since Part 2 of this series.

    If you were to instead work backwards from the Christian point of view and assume that Jesus was/is God, what properties of God could you then derive?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Pulse said…
    All this demonstrates is that many people have a different definition of God than Swinburne does, an objection that has been raised by readers since Part 2 of this series.


    You are assuming that "many people" who are Christian believers have clear and logically consitent views about God and Jesus.

    I think it is quite likely, however, that many Christians have unclear or logically inconsistent views about God and Jesus, and I suspect that the specific points in this post (part 6) highlight some logical inconsistencies in the thinking of many Christian believers.

    Swinburne's concept of God is well informed by Christian theology (esp. from Anselm and Aquinas, Leibniz, and some contemporary Christian thinkers). I don't recall reading any theologians who have rejected the idea that God was eternally omnipotent and eternally omniscient.

    Perfect freedom may be more peculiarly from Swinburne, but denying that God is perfectly free would probably result in implications that don't fit well with traditional Christian theology. If God's choices are influenced by desires and emotions, how could we be sure that God's choices will always be perfectly good, and that God would never give in to temptation?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07559081710058635050 Pulse

    Bradley Bowen said…
    "You are assuming that "many people" who are Christian believers have clear and logically consitent views about God and Jesus."

    I assume no such thing, and in fact I agree with you completely that many Christians have logically inconsistent views of God and Jesus. My point is not that theologians will find reason to disagree with any given point of Swinburne's (regardless of whether they accept his ultimate conclusions), but rather that the Christian masses will not be swayed by his technical definition of God.

    Specifically, I believe that many Christians do not consider the distinction between omnipotence and eternal omnipotence, unconsciously preferring the option that grants God more powers, including the power to forgo his omnipotence temporarily. This preference will cause such people to easily dismiss Swinburne's restrictive view of God, though their own worldview may not be any more logically consistent.

    That said, I think that your analysis does indeed raise some valid questions regarding one particular view of God.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07559081710058635050 Pulse

    I would like to imagine how my brother might react to reading Swinburne's definition of God. I consider my brother to be a common Christian in that he has read parts of the Bible and gone to church, and he has developed his own conception of God, but he has no background in philosophy or theology. Looking at the list you provided for us in Part 4 of this series, I can see my brother objecting to several of those statements.

    God is not eternally bodiless because he took several physical forms including people, burning foliage, and weather patterns.

    God is not eternally omnipresent because Hell is a place separate from God. Only his judgment resides there.

    God might not be eternally omniscient because there are examples of God being surprised or at least acting surprised.

    God might not be eternally omnipotent because there are times when he did not act as he could have, though he was most likely just holding himself back.

    God might not be eternally perfectly good because he has done some pretty horrendous things, but it could be claimed that the ends justify the means.

    Altogether, my brother would agree that God is the creator of the universe and a source of moral obligations, and he would claim that God is the most powerful being within or without creation. This conception of God is not nearly as specifically informative as Swinburne's description, but then again it may end up being more resilient to attack because it grants God a certain level of wiggle room.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Pulse said…

    Specifically, I believe that many Christians do not consider the distinction between omnipotence and eternal omnipotence, unconsciously preferring the option that grants God more powers, including the power to forgo his omnipotence temporarily.
    You might well be correct about the thinking of "many Christians", in that 'eternal ominpotence' might not seem much better than omnipotence that was less than eternal. But I'm not sure that such an idea would hold up very well under closer examination.

    Who was running the universe when God temporarily set aside his omnipotence? If the universe can continue to exist for a while without God's assistance, this implies that the universe has existence that is independent from God. In that case, God might have created the universe and then killed himself; 'God is dead' might literally be true.

    Also, once God sets aside his omnipotence, how can he get it back? He can no longer exert the power of omnipotence to restore himself, so it is unclear how he would restore his powers.

    If God can set aside his omnipotence, could God be destroyed by a human or a demon while in this weakened condition?
    If the existence of the universe was dependent upon the existence of God, and if the existence of God is at risk while he has set aside his omnipotence, then would that not mean putting the existence of the universe at risk? Would that be something that a perfectly good person would do?

    If God has actually set aside his omnipotence in the past, then he might well do so again. If God has all eternity to pop into and out of omnipotence, doesn't that make it likely that God will one day be destoyed and cease to exist? If so, then what reason do we have to believe that God is eternal? Perhaps God will just be around for a few more billion years, and then will pop into non-omnipotence and be swallowed by a fly.

    If God can set aside his omnipotence, then he ought also to be able to set aside his omniscience, and his perfect freedom. But then, that means that God could do evil. So, given that God could downgrade himself at any point in the future, why should I believe that God is eternally good?

    Many Christian believers might not immediately see eternal omnipotence as being any better than omnipotence that can be set aside. But that might be because they don't understand the implications of omnipotence that can be set aside.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    One more objection to consider about omnipotence that can be set aside.

    If God can temporarily become a non-ominpotent person, and then later turn into an omnipotent person, that implies that it is possible for a non-omnipotent person to become an omnipotent person. If that is the case, then why couldn't you or I be transformed into an omnipotent person?

    Perhaps on one of the times that God chooses to downgrade himself to a non-omnipotent person, someone else could be upgraded from a non-omnipotent person to an omnipotent person, and take over God's position as ruler of the universe. If some Christians believe that God has in fact undergone such a transformation in the past, then I see no reason to deny that some ordinary human person might take God's place. If this is so, then how do we know that such a switch has not already taken place in the eternal past?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    An observation about alternative conceptions of the meaning of 'God'…

    God is, most fundamentally, a person. The traditional divine attributes of omniscience, omnipotence, and perfect goodness only make sense if God is a person. Power, knowledge, freedom, and moral goodness are properties of persons, and these properties can occur in various degrees.

    Each of these properties is either relevant to application of the word 'God' or it is irrelevant. If relevant, then there are at least five degrees of each: sub-human, human, superhuman, perfect, and eternally perfect. If we drop out 'sub-human' from the possibilities for God (sub-human being more or less the same as saying that the factor was irrelevant), that leaves four degrees.

    So we have four basic properties of persons, which can occur in four different degrees, plus the possibility that the property is irrelevant to applying the word 'God'.

    That means that, considering just those basic properties, there are
    5x5x5x5 different possible combinations of properties possible for specifying what the word 'God' means. That is 25 x 25 possibilities = 625 different definitions/characterizations of God, just using those four properties.

    This does not include other possible divine attributes, such as being creator of the universe, bodiless, and a source of moral obligation.

    This does not include the variables in terms of the strength of the logical connection between the property and the word 'God':
    criteria vs. necessary condition.

    One can easily generate tens of thousands of different combinations of just a few attributes and variations of strength of logical connection between the properties and the word 'God'.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Pulse said..(about his brother's view of God)

    God might not be eternally perfectly good because he has done some pretty horrendous things, but it could be claimed that the ends justify the means.

    If God sometimes does horrendous things and so is not alway perfectly good, then why trust God for eternal life? Perhaps one will be a good and faithful Christian believer and follower of Jesus for decades, for an entire lifetime, and God will ignore this fact and cast such people into eternal hell, just for kicks, or maybe God will change his mind about the value of Christian faith, and come to see Christians as fawning yes-men, and ignore his previous promises to provide an eternity of bliss in heaven to such believers.

    If God has often done horrendous things in the past, why should anyone believe that God will keep his promises to provide eternal life in heaven to believers?

    Even if God does promote Christians to heaven and skeptics like me go to hell, perhaps after a million years have passed, God will change his mind and promote us critical thinkers to heaven and dump the Christian believers into hell.

    Why not? If God is subject to moral imperfection and to temptation to do evil, then God cannot be counted upon to provide heaven to the faithful.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Pulse said(concerning his brother's concept of God)…

    God might not be eternally omniscient because there are examples of God being surprised or at least acting surprised.
    Swinburne qualifies the concept of omniscience to allow for some ignorance in God, concerning the free actions taken by humans (and other persons who have free will).

    In choosing to create creatures with free will, God chooses to create beings who can make choices that are not knowable prior to the choice being made.

    So, if omniscience is limited to what is logically possible for God to know, then because it is logically impossible to know a free choice prior to the choice being made, that particular bit of ignorance is compatible with being omniscient.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Pulse said (concerning his brother's concept of God)…

    God is not eternally bodiless because he took several physical forms including people, burning foliage, and weather patterns.

    The concept of being a bodiless person is a bit subtle, and Swinburne has particular criteria in mind here. So, your brother might not understand all of the implications of this concept.

    God having a body raises a number of problems. If God has a body, then doesn't God have a specific location? If so, then how could God be omnipresent?

    If God has a body, then doesn't that mean that God has desires, urges, and emotions? If so, that would seem to imply that God can be tempted to do evil. So, having a body may not be compatible with being perfectly free and with being perfectly good.

    If God has a body, doesn't that mean that God gets information about the world via sense organs (eyes, ears, nose, taste buds, etc)? If so, how could God be omniscient?

    If God has a body, doesn't that mean that God could be destroyed? If it is possible to destroy God, then how can we be sure that God is eternal? Perhaps God became embodied at some point and then was killed. So 'God is dead' might literally be true. Perhaps there was a God who created the universe, but he no longer exists, because he became embodied at some point, and was destroyed while in that vulnerable condition.

    If God had a body, wouldn't God's thinking be limited by the finite brain in that body? But that would mean that God would not have been omniscient, at least for the period of time that he was embodied. But if God became ignorant when he became embodied, then perhaps he forgot that he was God. Or perhaps he remembered that much, but lost the knowledge of how to return to being an omniscient spirit again.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    This discussion of the idea of incarnation points to a central objection that Hume raised against belief in God. One must (it seems) pick between two different ways of thinking about God:

    perfect or imperfect

    transcendent or immanent

    infinite or finite

    But there are significant problems whichever side of the dilemma you choose.

    An infinite and perfect transcendent God will be very strange and not at all someone that you want to get close to, and the existence of such a being will be difficult to establish on the basis of empirical evidence.

    On the other hand, a finite and imperfect God will be less strange and more possible to establish on the basis of empirical evidence, but less worthy of awe and worship, and less worthy of firm trust and confidence, especially in relation to one's eternal destiny.

    The idea of the incarnation is an attempt to find a middle ground between the religious impulse or desire for infinity and perfection (on the one hand) and the religious impulse or desire for familiarity and experienced reality.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07559081710058635050 Pulse

    As I said before, I don't believe most alternative descriptions of God are any more logically consistent, and you have done a good job or raising some rather interesting objections to my brother's conception. I or he could probably raise responses and counter-objections, but that would just begin an endless spiral of ad hoc explanations.

    It seems to me that that the most consistent conceptions of God don't match up with the deities described by any of the major religions. But perhaps that has been your point all along.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13011167365662977331 Chad

    Where does it say that to kill is the damage the physical body. What if to kill is to destroy the spirit. Do we have spirits? Well there is plenty of scientific evidence showing that there is some energy and has ability to interact and manipulate with out a known generator of energy. if this has the possibility of being true then it is possible jesus wasn't killed in a Godly sense. Also if LadyAthiest read the bible she would understand the plot of the story and realize that jesus was meant to die and therefore allowed him self to remain on the cross. i know some say that religion isn't necessary but to live well do good and be sympathetic is to have a meaningful life. Isn't that what jesus said? If we live through him (like he did) then it would cover the atheists point of view.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13609656346736636990 Luke Talley

    Hey Bradley,

    I think premise #6 is misleading and stemming from a misconception. Philippians 2 explains that although Jesus had full access to omnipotence while on this earth, he "made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men" (2:7). Later it says that he "humbled himself" (2:8). Therefore, I would argue that Jesus was omnipotent, but chose to deny using his omnipotence for a brief period.

    Regarding omniscience, there are several spots in the Gospels where Jesus knew others thoughts (Matt. 9:4; 12:25; Luke 11:17). However, I will admit that Jesus' statement about no one knowing the day or hour of the second coming, not even the Son, does provide some tension. This is a perplexing verse that I need to look into with more vigor.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/18072432854331741199 Interested Theist

    I read an explanation once that "For a time, Jesus suspended the employment of some of his divine attributes without losing them ontologicallyy." Thus, Jesus retained his divine attributes without nescessarily employing them.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10319931319583316309 JMaz


    You say that Jesus cannot be God if He does not possess all 3 qualities, “(a) always omnipotent, (b) always omniscient, and (c) always perfectly free.” However, you never state why you say Jesus does not possess any of these three qualities.

    On the contrary, the Gospels portray Jesus as all three of these. In another post of yours called, “Arguments against the resurrection” I have argued for the first two points, so here I will address letter c, Jesus being “always perfectly free.”

    I would assume you are saying he was not since like LadyAtheist said, he did not pop the nails out of his hands and come down off of the cross. You likely view this as restrictive for Jesus. Perhaps you even view his humanity as being restrictive to his divinity.

    However, the Bible, and Christian belief, would say that Jesus added to his divinity humanity. Paul says in Philippians 2:5-8 that Jesus was in the form of God but humbled himself by being born in the likeness of men and was obedient to the point of death. So he actually bridges the gap between a transcendent God and humanity since He Himself was both God and man.

    Regarding his freedom, as Philippians says, “he humbled himself.” Jesus was not put in subjection by some cruel plan of the Father, but was willing to give himself up. As Jesus himself said in John’s Gospel, “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.” (John 10:17-18 ESV).

    So you can see in my previous post the arguments for (a) and (b), and here you can see that Jesus was perfectly free (c). He was accomplishing a purpose in freely laying down his life. His purpose was the will of the Father, and Jesus freely laid down his life as a payment for sins. Clearly, you do not believe in this now, but I would like to hear your thoughts on my defense of (c) and discuss this with you further.