Answering the Impossible,  Cornelius Van Til,  Omnipotence Paradox

Answering the Impossible

Can God build a rock so big he can’t lift it? If I say yes, then God cannot be all-powerful because there would be something he couldn’t do. If I say no, then God cannot be all-powerful because there is a limit to how big a rock he could build. Perhaps God is not as powerful as we thought or perhaps asking for a rock that big is meaningless, like asking for a square circle. Sometimes the question appears impossible to answer. And that might just be the point – which ever way you turn there is a trap.
I like this mind bending answer from Cornelius Van Til:

“God is the source of possibility. What is possible is determined by God’s nature. The very question whether God can do the impossible is impossible. It has no meaning unless it is first assumed that there is such a thing as impossibility apart from God. Now if there is such an impossibility, God is not God, so that the question drops. On the other hand, if there is no such impossibility, that is, if God is the source of possibility, the question is answered before it is put.”

Sometimes a question reveals more about the one asking the question than the one who is supposed to answer it.

I recently proposed responding to a more contemporary challenge in the same way. William Rowe, who titles himself “the friendly atheist,” suggests that theism must meet a challenge related to creation. How, given God’s omnipotence, omniscience and omnibenevolence, is it possible to conceive of a better possible world?1 Perhaps I have a broken leg in this world. It is conceivable that a world might have existed in which I do not have a broken leg (a better world by far for one with an addiction to running). Surely if there is a better possible world, such a supremely good and powerful God would be obliged to create it. Rowe suggests that, given such a possible world, it appears possible that God is not as good or powerful as supposed or a being is possible who is greater than God.

Consider Van Til’s notion of possibility. We might ask what it is that makes possibility possible. The question of the possibility of a world that is better than this one ruling out the possibility of God (as defined by Rowe) assumes that possibility is possible without God. But if God is the source of all possibility, then the god-less possibility is not possible at all. So, the question of whether it was possible for God to create another possible world has no meaning unless it is assumed that possibility is possible without God. If there is such a possibility, then God is not God. If, on the other hand, there is no such possibility then the question is answered before it is put.2 This argument is illustrative of how challenges sometimes are impossible to answer on the same ground as the challenge begins. Van Til’s answer attempts to reveal how the very terms of the debate (in this case the nature of possibilia) are only possible if one accepts the starting point of one or other worldview.

1William Rowe, Can God be Free? (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).
2Cornelius Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1974), 396. 

Assistant Professor of Philosophy and History of Ideas at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and The College at Southeastern.