The Paradox of God’s Attributes

There are terms that we often use in conversation without fully understanding the scope of their meaning, often because we have heard others use them, particularly if those others have gained some measure of respect from us and we desire to emulate them. The problem is that this usually backfires. Let’s take two words, paradox and contradiction, for example, as we often use them synonymously when they mean quite opposite things.

Logically speaking, a paradox consists of two or more apparently contradictory statements that, when unpacked or closely examined, are not, in fact, contradictory. However, a contradiction exists when two statements oppose one another. The difference between the two is often most clearly seen in the Bible, because it often contains parallel accounts of the same incidents.

One of my favorites is found between 2 Samuel 24:18-25 and 1 Chronicles 21:18-22:1 because they present the clearest example of the difference between a paradox and a contradiction. When one initially looks at texts in question, there are two profound differences that immediately jump out at someone reading these in English: first is the name of the property owner (Araunah in 2 Samuel vs Ornan in 1 Chronicles) the second is the amounts of money paid (50 silver talents in 2 Samuel vs 600 gold talents in 1 Chronicles). It would be very easy to call these “contradictions” and keep on moving, and that’s what many atheists have done, but they aren’t, in fact, contradictions, they are a paradox. 

Remember that I often accuse atheists of being lazy thinkers, that they often miss the proverbial forest for the trees? Yeah, this would be one of those instances because, if you simply dig into the original languages and not stop at just the translation of these languages, or if the translators would sometimes do a better job at rendering the text, or if atheists just would actually read the text and think—I know that it’s hard, I really do, but just a thinking goes a long way—then it wouldn’t be so time consuming refuting them for what are just elementary matters of reading comprehension and understanding how translations work, I’ve got an entire video on that, not to mention the video I have dealing with those specific texts.

So, with that out of the way, what exactly is this post about?

Well, I stumbled across a post by our junior atheist friend, The Closet Atheist, titled, “6 Contradictions of God” where she clearly doesn’t understand the difference between a paradox and a contradiction. The question is, where are these “contradictions” found? Well, she finds them in the classical attributes of God which are commonly listed as: omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, and omnibenevolence. The fact that God—the biblical God—possesses, this is not to say that he has attained them but rather that they are intrinsically necessary ontological qualities, these attributes often poses a problem for non-critical thinkers when it comes to their relationship when discussing them. I want to, as briefly as possible, give what I have come to understand as what is meant by these terms in their theological and philosophical senses.


Theologically, omnipotence needs to be understood as authority, primarily. God’s authority is absolute over his creation. There is no higher authority than the one who made and sustains all creation. The fact that God has all authority means that he can delegate and hold accountable those to whom that authority has been given. Philosophically, omnipotence is often categorized as ability, what can God do? This has often been defined as all things logical, which means that there are limits to God’s abilities. The objection is that an omnipotent being should be able to do anything and everything. The obvious problem is that would mean that omnipotence would be a transferable attribute. Is this possible? Yes. Is it reasonable (ie logical)? No, and resoundingly so.

Theologically, omniscience refers to the totality of God’s knowledge, that is that God’s knowledge consists of all true things, both real and possible. God possesses both exhaustive self-knowledge and exhaustive knowledge of his creation. God doesn’t learn, God knows and his knowledge of his creation is founded upon his decrees towards that creation. Philosophically, this is seen as a sum total. There is no real descension from the the theological understanding of the term.

Omnipresence, theologically speaking, is related to God’s omnipotence and omniscience in reference to his access. That is to say that, as Creator, God has unhindered access to his creation, he is the landlord with a master key that will not prevent any obstruction from allowing him access. Philosophically, this is often categorized as transcendence with regard to space and time. 

Lastly, omnibenevolence, speaks of God’s will and nature. It is often called “love”, but it’s not sentimental emotion. Omnibenvolence is something of a theological novum, coming into any real discussion in the past 40 years. It is simplistically referred to as God being “all-loving”, but it is so much more than that when the biblical categories are applied, but it is difficult to explain without considering God’s holiness, justice, and desires. There is no real way to consider the term philosophically because it runs headlong into issues of theodicy, which is where the questions really begin to add up.


Looking back to Closet Atheist’s issues with these, they are philosophically elementary objections, such as

Omnipotence – Can God create a boulder so heavy he cannot lift it? Before you say anything: no, I don’t like that overused cliche either. But… it’s something to think about. Especially when it’s re-worded into a less tired phrase. Can God create a being powerful enough to destroy him? Can God reconcile a paradox such as the question at the beginning of this paragraph? If you can “do anything”, does that include the impossible?

As I said, this goes into the realms of the possible/reasonable, which renders them nonsensical. Think about the question, can God create a being powerful enough to destroy him? It comes down to whether one thinks that omnipotence is a transferable as opposed to an intrinsic characteristic. If it is the latter, the Christian position, then God cannot create a being powerful enough to destroy him because doing so would mean that he is not omnipotent.  Likewise as to whether or not God can do the impossible, we have to define what “impossible” is. If it is something contradictory, then the answer is “no”, but that has nothing to do with omnipotence, although non-thinkers might think that it does.

Also, there’s this nonsense,

Omnipotence and omnibenevolence – If you are all-perfect, then you are incapable of doing anything bad. If you are all-powerful, then you can do anything, whether it is good or bad. Logically, God could only be one or the other.

First, it falsely assumes—without proving—a standard external to God’s omnibenevolent nature by which to judge. Second, it assumes a contradictiction: that God can do something contrary to his nature. If God is truly (ie really) good, then evil can have no place in his presence.

Then we get into serious theological territory, salvation:

Omnipotence, omnibenevolence, omniscience, and unbelief – If God exists and knows everything, can do anything, and is completely good, then he would not want me to go to hell. As a matter of fact, according to my family’s Lutheran beliefs, he wants unbelievers to convert and be “saved”, but somehow he can’t make us. Besides that little tidbit contradicting his omnipotence, he really should be able to make me believe, if he truly wants to, and if he is all-perfect then he should want to. And it wouldn’t have to be forceful; he would simply have to show himself to me or at least show me substantial evidence of his existence. What exactly would I find to be acceptable evidence? If he’s omniscient, then he knows. Yet here I am, unconvinced and hell-bound.

giphy

I could write an entire post on the number of fallacious assumption here, but to be brief, God bringing people to saving faith and keeping them is a demonstration of his omnipotence, both in authority and ability. Her unbelief is equally a testimony to God’s absolute power in this matter because there is nothing that she can do to save herself or cause herself to believe. God’s goodness is demonstrated both in the act of saving one person and in the condemnation of another. God’s knowledge of his creatures is demonstrated in what it takes to both cause belief in one person and reinforce unbelief in another. This is either/or fallaciousness at its most glorious display.

Then we go down some previously treaded streets,

Omniscience, omnibenevolence, and prayer – This may be my favorite flaw of Christianity. I don’t know if having a favorite makes me a dork, but I’ll continue: people pray to God, asking him to do things for them. It’s not the only purpose of prayer, but it is one of them. People ask God for things, ask him to tell them things, or rattle off things they want as if he’s Santa Claus or something. It’s a popular old paradox that I’ve written about before, but if God is omniscient, then he knows what you want, then you shouldn’t have to tell him. If he just wants to watch you beg and prove that you really want it, then that’s pretty cruel, and not omnibenevolent.

This demonstrates an incredible amount of ignorance and utter arrogance. “God knows what I want.” “That’s probably why he doesn’t give it to you.” Let me be clear: GOD IS NOT A COSMIC COKE MACHINE. Further, what God knows has no relevance to what I pray for or about, I pray for that knowledge. More than that it is a freaking command. In happiness, in sadness, we are to call out to our Father. This is the heart of selfishness and ingratitude on full display. More that that, it is saying, “You know, if God really loved me…” He saved you from his righteous wrath that was due for your sins by stepping into its path, it’s not a question of his love for you as much as your love for him. 

Let’s throw in the problem of evil for good measure,

Omnibenevolence, omnipotence, omniscience, and horror – Cancer. Hurricanes. Disease. Even heartbreak. If a deity can prevent these things and he does not, he is not perfect or he is not capable of preventing them or he doesn’t know it’s happening. The problem of evil is talked about enough and has been maneuvered around enough times that it doesn’t need to resurface here, but it is probably the most famous contradiction of the Christian god, so I had to include it.

Can God stop natural disasters? Yes. The fact that he doesn’t says nothing about his goodness, his power, or his knowledge, except that he has a right to do with his creation as he pleases. If God is perfectly good, then he is obligated to destroy evil. Guess what, you’re evil, God is obligated to destroy you. He can do it fast, or he can do it slow. God knows that you are evil but he, in his goodness gives opportunity for repentance. God knows that apart from an exercise of his power, no one will repent. God, in his goodness, exercises his power and causes some who justly deserve his wrath to repent and to seek him. Some of the many means that he has at his disposal to bring that about that end is disease and disaster. What obstacles does God have to remove to bring you to himself? The fact that God can use evil to bring about good is a testimony to his power.

Lastly,

Omniscience – This one’s interesting, possibly because of its subtlety. One of my Christian professors actually articulated his difficulty in comprehending this one. He asked, “Does God know what it’s like to be a strawberry?” Now that’s not something you ask yourself every day. But obscure things like this don’t seem like the type of thing that can be known. So can God know things that seem unknowable? Does he know what your life is like? Or mine? Does he know how we atheists have struggled with religion, and not being convinced, and how hard it is to be in the closet and come out? Is this really what he wants? If not, he’s not doing anything about it or reminding us that he’s there after all.

Short answer: yes. Now, each of those questions has a long and deliberate answer worthy of a post in themselves but the brief answer is “yes”. As for her final statement, I would remind her that her conscience and the creation around her scream that God is there. The indignation that accompanies injustice is a testimony to man’s intrinsic recognition that his status as an image bearer of God. Wonder at the complexity and interconnectedness of the created order testifies to the majesty and power of its Creator. God’s immanence permeates reality so much that man is left to muddle in absurdity if discounted.

There are numerous paradoxes that exist between the attributes of God and human experience, however they find themselves resolved when brought into light of God’s revelation of himself both in the Written Word of Scripture and in Christ Jesus.

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