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The Paradoxes of God April 10, 2009

Posted by Ian in Religion.

One of the peculiar things about religion, and specifically about various descriptions of gods, is the number of paradoxes that seem to pop up when trying to have proper discussions about it.  This post explores some of the ones I have come across in no particular order.  While of course they don’t “prove” anything, they are fascinating to think about and also provide some interesting challenges for theists.

Epicurus famously stated of an omnipotent and benevolent god:

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
  Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing?
  Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing?
  Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing?
  Then why call him God?

This is the so-called problem of evil and is usually resolved by references to god’s will, or by trying to explain that how things are are optimal.  Nonetheless one has to wonder why things aren’t even slightly better than they currently are for people on the whole assuming god exists and cares about people.  The mere fact that things could be even slightly better than they are now suggests our imperfection is either deliberate or out of gods control.

Douglas Adams made the following wonderful comment in the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy referring to the Babel Fish:

Now it is such a bizarrely improbably coincidence that anything so mindbogglingly useful could have evolved by chance that some thinkers have chosen to see it as a final and clinching proof of the non-existence of God.  The argument goes something like this:

“I refuse to prove that I exist,” says God, “for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing.”

“But,” says Man, “the Babel fish is a dead giveaway isn’t it? It could not have evolved by chance. It proves you exist, and so therefore, by your own arguments, you don’t. QED”

“Oh dear,” says God, “I hadn’t thought of that,” and promptly vanishes in a puff of logic.

This seemingly cute little argument hides a deeper paradox.  Faith becomes redundant with evidence and since god demands faith there can be no evidence of gods existence.  One could argue around this by saying god doesn’t really demand faith but then that would cause religion a few other problems.  One could also argue around this by saying everything requires faith but then this rather waters down the notion of faith.

The next paradox is a classic from philosophy (and is often actually called the god paradox) which goes as follows:

God is omnipotent so can god create a stone that god cannot lift?

This is essentially the immovable object versus the irresistible force paradox which is common to all claims of omnipotence.  There are several responses to this but almost all of them trip up.  There are several other problems with omnipotence as well such as the notion that omnipotence means anything that happens was god’s will regardless of how it happened.

If a person is raped, that rape is the will of god.  There is no way around this – if god knows everything and can do anything, the rape occurs either because god made it happen or because god allowed it to happen.

This is essentially a reformation of the problem of evil mentioned earlier.  This also extends to the very notion of free will:

Do I have free will?  If god is omnipotent then I can only the things god wants to allow me to do. 
In other words if god chooses to give me free will then god wants me to do whatever I do so it wasn’t really free will at all.

This one is tricky because it means if I choose to sin, god chose to allow me to sin.

There is also a subtle paradox that works around the notion of god as a causal agent:

Causality is defined as three things:  temporal precedence, covariance and absence of another cause.
If god is outside time then god cannot cause anything.  If god is within time then god cannot cause time.

Of course you may decide that causality is not universal but then this means the universe doesn’t need a cause in the first place rendering the first cause requirement for god redundant. 

I’ll finish this list here since all the other ones I can think of essentially boil down to one of those listed above.



1. Dale - April 14, 2009

Me again – I had a few spare minutes and thought I’d give some constructive feedback 🙂
On theodicy, Epicurus, etc.: this one has been going for a while 🙂 But you (rightly – way to go Ian!) at least start to go in a fruitful direction by discussing what a world with a God might look like with this quote:

The mere fact that things could be even slightly better than they are now suggests our imperfection is either deliberate or out of gods control.

But… Ahem… how do you know that ‘the-way-things-are’ (TM) isn’t ‘slightly better’ than ‘the-way-things-could-have-been’ (TM)? 😉 Or better yet – whose idea of ‘better’ are we using here? And (yet more), the problem of ‘evil’ is one thing, but what about the problem of ‘good’? I acknowledge the tension here. It’s been talked about for millenia. For me, the key thing is NOT how much good there is, or how much evil there is, but what matters is that the God I believe in (and strive to follow) desires good and not evil – regardless of how much we think there is of either one. The kind of ‘solution’ to the problem of evil we really need (and I’d say also the one God wants – and has brought about in the person/work of Jesus) is not a philosophical treatise about how evil can exist, but rather virtuous action: overcoming evil – both within us and in the world around us.

On Babel Fish example: Hmm… How do you know that faith (‘trust’) and ‘evidence’ (there’s that word again) are contradictory? 🙂

On stone so heavy…: You’re kidding, right? 😉 And your following comments (“…omnipotence means anything that happens was god’s will regardless of how it happened.”) only restate the theodicy issue.

On rape being “God’s will”: Just because something is ‘allowed to happen’ (which is still a bit too mechanistic a phrase for me), doesn’t mean that it was “God’s will” (‘desire’). And again, this is merely to restate (as you say) the ‘free will’ / theodicy issue.

On omnipotence & free will: Daniel Dennett: “Of course you have free will, you have no choice about that.” I like that – it captures the ‘both-and’ of it. 🙂 And on the ‘god chose to allow me to sin’ thing; yes, that’s part of it, an initial observation, if you like; but there’s more – we also believe God has-acted/is-acting/will-act to counter sin/evil.

On causality: The quote says: “If god is outside time then god cannot cause anything. If god is within time then god cannot cause time.” Hint: what if standard, run-of-the-mill monotheism holds that God is BOTH ‘outside’ (unbound by) AND ‘within’ (active within) time? Oops…

2. Ian - April 15, 2009

Thanks Dale, useful comments 🙂

The omnipotence issue is a really complex one and I suspect most people who ascribe to omnipotence really mean “sufficiently powerful to do the things required” rather than “capable of anything and everything”. Of course the bible neglects to tell us in much detail about just what god is so this is all conjecture.

Hint: what if standard, run-of-the-mill monotheism holds that God is BOTH ‘outside’ (unbound by) AND ‘within’ (active within) time? Oops…

This doesn’t change the argument 🙂 If god is such then the aspect of god outside time cannot cause anything and the aspect of god within time cannot cause time.

3. Dale Campbell - April 15, 2009

“the aspect of god outside time cannot cause anything and the aspect of god within time cannot cause time.”

Huh? That’s quite a strange assertion – divinding God into ‘aspects’… Even if God could be so divided (which I most certainly would disagree with), you’ve still arrived at an understanding (or ‘mis’-understanding) in which God (somehow) both causes things within time and causes time itself.

4. Ian - April 15, 2009

Huh? That’s quite a strange assertion – divinding God into ‘aspects’…

No stranger than the trinity… 😉

Even if God could be so divided (which I most certainly would disagree with), you’ve still arrived at an understanding (or ‘mis’-understanding) in which God (somehow) both causes things within time and causes time itself.

Which one doesn’t god do in your opinion?

5. Dale Campbell - April 15, 2009

The trinity (tri-UNITY) doesn’t ‘divide’ God – all analogies fail at some point, but it’s at least something like how ONE woman can have three different kinds of identities (mother, sister, daughter), or something like how one substance (H2O) can have three states (ice, water and steam – though that logically goes toward modalism). But… this is irrelevant to our topic, which is causality – even if God was a octa-unity (8-in-1), he could still be causally active both within and outside of time.

Which one doesn’t god do in your opinion?

It should be clear that I think he does both.

6. Ian - April 15, 2009

he could still be causally active both within and outside of time.

This is the source of our disagreement I think 🙂 Causality is defined by three conditions:

1. Temporal precedence (If A causes B, A occurs before B)
2. Covariance (A and B change in sync)
3. Absence of other causes (If A causes B, C does not cause B)

If god is outside time then item 1 becomes invalid because god cannot “cause” things if “before” has no meaning. If you are willing to accept that it is possible for things to be made to happen without temporal precedence then all sorts of new possibilities open up including future events making things happen in the past which rather weakens the need for a first cause.

Out of slightly tangential curiosity, where in the bible is god considered “outside” time?

7. Dale Campbell - April 15, 2009

I think the above (1,2,3) outline of causality is restricted to material causality. Divine causality is a different thing. The belief that God, for example, causes order to arise out of chaos, or biological life to arise out of inorganic matter cannot be reduced to physics or biology, but rather has to do with God wanting or desiring order and life.
And, of course, there is not any (necessary) conflict between this divine ‘wanting’/’why’/’bringing-about’ kind of causation and the material ‘happening’/’how’/’behavioural-description’ kind of causation.

As for God being ‘outside’ time – good question. The Bible rarely uses naked philosophical terminology like “outside time”, but the authors consistently portray God as both active within time, and also being ‘the eternal’ (timeless) One.

8. Damian - April 15, 2009

…and also being ‘the eternal’ (timeless) One…

Or does ‘eternal’ actually mean ‘for all time’?

Divine causality is a different thing

I’m not sure I follow your logic on this one. Surely if God divinely causes order to arise out of chaos then there must have been a time before there was order? If so, then this ‘divine causality’ is the same as ‘ordinary time-based causality’?

9. Dale - April 15, 2009

Cheers Damian,
Yeah, again, the Bible doesn’t really use finely-tuned (no reference to I.D.-ism intended!) philosophical terminology – but the usage of Eternal, etc. signify a view of God that is certainly not limited by time. Another example is the meaning of YHV[W]H or Yahweh (I AM –> “I am that I am” or “I always was, I always am, I always will be”, etc.), and also the “Alpha and Omega” title.

And yes, it would follow that divine causality would include God’s desire/will/etc. for time itself. Which (btw) is inextricably woven with the notion of free will, because without time, there can be no moment in which to make a choice, and no moment in which the choice can be realised.

10. Ian - April 15, 2009

Dale: I’d be inclined to agree with Damian, the language you are using only seems to imply “there at all points in time” rather than this notion of outside time. In fact I did a quick search and the only actual reasoning I could find for god being outside time (other than just assertion) was Bill Craig’s argument which is, ironically, that causality demands a first cause (which I don’t think is true as discussed in another post on his debate with Cooke). It is not a scriptural argument.

11. Dale Campbell - April 15, 2009

More verses/passages (and note that when terms like ‘the world’ and/or ‘the heavens’, etc. are used, they are the largest terms available to the writers – pretty all encompassing; let us not expect them to say ‘universe’ or ‘multi-verse’):

Psalm 90:2 “Before the mountains were made, or the earth and the world was formed; from eternity and to eternity thou art God.”

Proverbs 8:22-27 [the ‘me’ and ‘I’ this proverb is speaking of is a personification of Wisdom] “The Lord possessed me in the beginning of his ways, before he made any thing from the beginning. I was set up from eternity, and of old, before the earth was made. The depths were not as yet, and I was already conceived, neither had the fountains of waters as yet sprung out. The mountains, with their huge bulk, had not as yet been established: before the hills, I was brought He had not yet made the earth, nor the rivers, nor the poles of the When he prepared the heavens, I was present: when with a certain law, and compass, he enclosed the depths:”

Isaiah 57:15 “For thus saith the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity”

I’d also want to say that every time the Lord is referred to as ‘eternal’, etc. it is being assumed (if not directly stated) that God is the creator of time. In fact, the very idea of a Creator of all things necessarily implies the idea of a Creator of time itself.

I don’t think this is too controversial or shocking.

12. Ian - April 15, 2009

Thanks for those Dale.

I reckon the first two can be explained (from the biblical point of view) by pointing out day 1 probably involved some time with no earth or heaven (such that their creation happening on day one made sense). It seems likely to me that this is what they meant given their understanding of the world? Also if eternity is taken to mean “there at any time” the verses makes just as much sense (perhaps even more) than if you take it to mean “outside time”.

I am not convinced that the assumption that god is the creator of time is a valid one. I doubt the author of the bibles even realised time was something that had to be created. In my opinion we are imposing that assumption on the text based on our current world view rather than getting it from scripture. Surely the very best we could say is that it is not strictly contradicted by the text?

13. Dale Campbell - April 16, 2009

As I’ve been saying, the bible doesn’t make use of technical philosophical jargon, but often uses poetic metaphor. This means we won’t find our more pointed philosophical questions directly answered in the text. We have to try to discern what they would have assumed.

So then, doing our best to discern this, we look at such passages, and can (clearly, I think) see the writers of the Bible quite consistently using language/metaphor which assumes God to be the Creator behind all things. Phrases like ‘before the creation of _____’ are the more obvious examples here.

Far from being ‘not strictly contradicted’ by the text, the view that God is (in our modern terms) ‘outside of time’, is one that logically (and I’d even say necessarily) from the text (and in the most basic of ways).

14. Ian - April 16, 2009

How about another way of approaching this: what in the bible would not make sense if god was within time but would make sense if he wasn’t? I can’t think of anything off the top of my head…

15. Dale Campbell - April 16, 2009

the bits to do with God being the creator and source of all things – in other words, monotheism 🙂 sounds trite, but I think this is precisely what the biblical authors are assuming all along the way.

16. Ian - April 16, 2009

I don’t think the biblical authors would recognise time as creatable. They don’t even really make any mention of creating matter or energy, both of which are simpler concepts than time. I think they assumed time just began (a reasonable assumption given their knowledge) and that god was the first thing there when it began and will continue to exist for “all time”.

As an aside, this page makes me doubt if we’ll ever know what the authors actually meant by eternity…

17. Dale - April 16, 2009

((the article you link to refers to whether or not the Messiah/Christ was ‘from ‘eternity’ or from ‘ancient times’ “, not whether or not God is in/out of time, etc.))

I think you’re looking for detailed statements that the Bible shouldn’t be expected to provide. It’s quite a simple and logical step to go from God being the Creator and source of all things to assume that ‘all things’ would include time. The (technical and of course extra-biblical) word that all of these texts lead to is ‘transcendent’. God transcends nature-slash-‘all-things’. In our modern language, we’d say that God is the creator of the universe (kosmos or ‘world’ in scripture – as opposed to ‘ge’ for earth) – which we call the space, time and matter universe.

18. Ian - April 17, 2009

I think you’re looking for detailed statements that the Bible shouldn’t be expected to provide.

I don’t expect it to provide anything (lol), but in the absence of such detail surely it is not valid to impose detail on it and then claim that is what scripture says?

Unless the bible specifically says that god is outside time, the best anyone can say is that the hypothesis that god is outside time is not inconsistent with the bible. However this leaves all your work ahead of you to come up with a reason why god should be considered outside time.

19. Dale - April 17, 2009

OK, we must be nearing the ‘as far as we can go’ point?

Bible says ‘all things’, you want it to say ‘and this includes time itself’. I think it’s a logical step, and would be far more difficult to demonstrate God’s captivity within time from Scripture, than to discern that they assumed he created time.

20. Dale - April 23, 2009

oops – missed a couple of verse (shocking, huh?)

Jude 1:25 to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.

Tit 1:2 in hope of eternal life, which God, who cannot lie, promised before times eternal;

21. Dale - April 23, 2009

‘couple of verse’… nice one dale

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