Proclaim the power of God, whose majesty is over Israel,
whose power is in the heavens.
You, God, are awesome in your sanctuary;
the God of Israel gives power and strength to his people.
Praise be to God!
What does it mean to say God is “great”?
I have already affirmed Anselm’s definition of God as the being that no greater can be conceived. The term omnipotent may be used,which means that God is all powerful. Only an omnipotent being could have created the universe from nothing beyond his own resources. This alone qualifies God as great. We could also say that God is great means his glory is above all else. He is worthy because of what he has done, and for who and what he is. We are wise to recognize him and revere him and praise him.
So, we could stop right there. God is great. However, as you are aware, there is a problem. What about the evil and apparent imperfections of our world. If God is all powerful, then why couldn’t he create a better world? If God is good, then why wouldn’t he create a perfect world? Why is there so much suffering and evil? This why some have said God is not great, and others have said God must not exist at all.
What Omnipotence Cannot Do
The title above may seem contradictory, but we need to understand what is meant by “all powerful.” Let’s look at some quotes concerning God’s omnipotence.
“Omnipotence means to be able to do all that is intrinsically possible.” (C. S. Lewis in The Problem with Pain)
“Nothing that implies contradiction falls under the omnipotence of God.” (Thomas of Aquinas)
“But I know very well that if it is self-contradictory it is absolutely impossible.”
“You may attribute miracles to him (God) but not nonsense…. It remains true that all things are possible with God: the intrinsic impossibilities are not things but non-entities.” (C. S. Lewis)
The word intrinsic (used by C. S. Lewis above) means what is related to the essential nature of something or someone. God can do what is humanly impossible, but some things are intrinsically impossible, which means they are “in themselves” impossible. God cannot make a red green thing. Since color is actually the reflection of a certain band of light on the electromagnetic spectrum, permit me to to clarify: God cannot make an infra-red ultra-violet thing. Why? Infra-red and ultra-violet exist at opposite extremes on the electromagnetic spectrum. One cannot be the same as the other.
In a world of genuinely free creatures it would seem to be intrinsically impossible for God to force persons to do what he wills when they choose to do otherwise. Thus, it is intrinsically impossible for God to force free people to love him. Forced love would not be love at all, but a monstrous mockery of it. Love is intrinsically free, so it must come from a person with free will. This opens up a very complex subject: Determinism vs. Freedom.
Can God make a rock so heavy he cannot lift it?
If you answer yes to the question above, then you agree implicitly that God may be limited by his creation. If you answer in the negative, then you affirm God is not omnipotent, since there is indeed something His power is incapable of. This dilemma is intended to stump those of us who affirm that God is all powerful. The resolution I offer will serve to prove both God’s omnipotence and give insight into his character.
My answer to the question is, yes God can—and has—created such a “rock.” The rock in this case is the human will. You and I can resist the will of God for our lives. We are even capable of choosing not to believe in His existence! God’s power is such that he is capable of limiting himself for a greater good. His character is such that he has created beings in his image, persons with a free will who may choose to love and live with Him forever, or reject Him and go their own way. The former is heaven, the latter is hell. Without human free will in rebellion against God there would be no hell.
The capability and willingness (courage!) to create beings with free will who inhabit a world where that will may be genuinely actualized demonstrates God’s greatness. Systems of theology or thought that downgrade or eliminate human free will in an effort to elevate the sovereignty of God ultimately fail to give God the glory he is due. The world is imperfect because of human rebellion against God. The world remains in its fallen state (for now) in order that rebellious humans may experience life without God, and its consequences.
The pre-eminent example of God’s capacity and willingness to limit himself is the incarnation of His one and only Son. Jesus of Nazareth affirmed, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30). The Apostle Paul proclaimed “For in him all the fullness of deity lives bodily” (Colossians 2:9). Jesus continued to be God and to have the nature of God, but chose to lay aside his divine power and privileges to take on the limitations of a human nature. The baby born in a manger “grew in wisdom and stature and favor with God and man,” and remained in unbroken communion with, and dependence upon, God the Father, throughout his time on earth. This Jesus was and is one with the God of the universe. However, the Son of God didn’t just pretend to be human, he became one of us. A popular songwriter from a previous decade asked:
What if God was one of us?
Just a slob like one of us
Just a stranger on the bus
Tryin’ to make his way home?
Jesus Christ became just that. He took every bit of our humanity upon himself. As one early theologian put it, “What is is un-assumed is unhealed” (St. Gregory of Nazianzus). This means the Son of God had to take on the fullness of humanity in order to take away all of our sin. On the cross Jesus assumed all of our sin and selfishness and sickness and then died the death we deserve.
“He who knew no sin became our sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him” (2 Corinthians 5:21). He came and died and rose from death so that we may be saved from this corrupt world, and have the hope of eternal life in a new and perfect world.
That is the epitome of love, and it required self limitation.
“who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6–9, ESV).
“He who knew no sin became our sin that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
However, Christ didn’t remain dead. “Ain’t no grave can hold my body down!” The Author of Life rose from the grave on the third day, and now He always lives to provide salvation for any who will put their faith in Him.
“Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:10-11).
Is it any wonder the Apostle Paul would write a paean to this Great God:
“Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?’ ‘Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?’ For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen” (Romans 11:33–36, ESV).
God’s true greatness is about more than possession of raw power and incomprehensible intellect to make things and people as he wants them to be. The limitless God can limit himself if he chooses. God has created beings in his image with free will. God has limited himself by permitting the independent exercise of free will, even when it opposes his own. God also limited himself by becoming one of us, so that the destructive exercise of human free will may be atoned for and corrected. God has chosen to limit himself in order to achieve the ultimate purpose of his glorious will to raise up a people who have freely chosen to love him, and who have decided to follow their Lord, who said, “not my will, but thy will be done.” He is in the process of calling people to be his own, who will freely align their wills with God’s without coercion or fear of punishment.
“But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness and into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9).
God is very great indeed.