Mackie & The Paradox of Omnipotence

Focus“[C]an an omnipotent being make things which he cannot subsequently control?” inquired J. L. Mackie(1955:210), as he set forth what he called the Paradox of Omnipotence. Mackie’s paradox unfolds as follow:

If we answer “Yes”, it follows that if God actually makes things which he cannot control, or makes rules which bind himself, he is not omnipotent once he has made them: there are then things which he cannot do. But if we answer ” No “, we are immediately asserting that there are things which he cannot do, that is to say that he is already not omnipotent.(ibid)

Mackie anticipated a common reply that his “paradox is not a proper questions” and responded that it is a proper question equal to the notion of humans’ possibility of making machines they cannot control.

We could add beliefs about God that Christians cannot deny, viz., God cannot lie (Tit. 1:2) and God cannot be tempted with evil (Jam. 1:13) to Mackie’s list of fundamental difficulty in the notion of an omnipotent God creating beings God cannot control and God making rules that binds God Himself.

The possible solution to Mackie’s paradox could be the notion that a being that is God could actually make things which He cannot control, or make rules which bind himself, yet remain omnipotent once he has made them since cannot does not necessarily reflect that being’s ability, the possible power it could have to accomplish that state of affair, but moral character such a being is strongly disposed.

Addressing a similar problem of omnipotence and God’s ability to sin, Nelson Pike (1969: 215-216) provided an illustration to show how that could be the case, which I borrowed and exaggerated it a little. Think of deeply devoted Buddhist Jones whom we are told cannot be cruel animals. Surely Jones does have physical ability to kick a kitten, for example. So it is not because Jones lacked certain power to act cruel to the animals that Jones cannot be cruel to animals but because of Jones’ strongly disposed moral character that insures that he is incapable of acting cruel to them. The cannot does not reflect Jones physical ability, but moral incapability.

If this is true, then a being that is God, thus necessarily omnipotent, could be said to have ability to make things which He cannot control, or make rules which bind himself but yet remain omnipotent once he has made them because it is not because of lack of certain amount of possible power that being could possess that it cannot control beings it has made(or is bind by its own rules) but it is because of its moral perfection that insures that it is incapable of doing so.

Thus contrary to Mackie (1955: 209-10), there is no fundamental difficulty in the notion of an omnipotent God creating humans with real free will that even God cannot control them since it is not God’s lack of possible power a being that is God could have that being cannot control them, but because of that being’s moral perfection.[1]

The conclusion that Mackie drew, viz., if there is a thing God cannot control or rules that binds God Himself then God is no longer omnipotent, is thus not necessarily true.

[1] This also answer the question on how God cannot sin/ cannot be tempted yet is omnipotent.


Mackie, J. L. (1955) “Evil and Omnipotence,” Mind, New Series, Vol. 64, No. 254: 200-212.

Pike, Nelson (1969) “Omnipotence and God’s Ability to Sin,” American Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 6, No. 3: 208-216

Cover Paint: William Blake “Great Architect of the Universe”

19 thoughts on “Mackie & The Paradox of Omnipotence

  1. Every time people make this paradoxs exercises assumes that God lives in Time.
    But: GOD IS! No more.
    Don´t put Him in the present or in the future.

  2. I also need some clarification on your definition of omnipotent… because your definition bears no resemblance to “all powerful”.

      • I look forward to the post.
        Can you also elaborate on what you mean by “omnipotent” when you say that God could create something He can’t control or create laws that limit Him, but is still omnipotent. Because it looks like a new and wildly different definition of “all powerful”.

        • That is why I will contend for what it means by all-powerful (omni-potent), how it was understood by Anselm, and Aquinas, and contemporary philosopher Morris, van Iwagen, Plantinga, Swinburne &c. I will also argue which understand I judged correct.

  3. Is it impossible for God to sin? There is a difference between “He will not” and “He cannot”. If it is the latter, regardless of reasoning, He is not omnipotent. (Also, what is the difference between “He certainly will not” and “He cannot”?)

    • Nelson Pike argued, and correctly I judged, that a being that is God has the ability to sin(can sin) but it’s moral perfection insures that it will not(“cannot” sin). With his Jones example Pike explain how “cannot” does not necessarily reflect ability(possible power a being could have) but moral character a being is strongly disposed.

      • I know you disagree. Yes if ones moral perfect makes that individual incapable of acting certain way, yes you are correct but that has nothing to do with that individuals power. As shown before a person P may have all the power it takes to do X, but not the will or reason or moral capability to do X. The fact that P cannot do X does not necessarily reflect P’s power(or lack of). Concluding that since P cannot X, then P lack power, is unwarranted assumption.

  4. I suppose that God and I are the same. How? We both are creators. My wife and I created a daughter. We nourished her and taught her, we feed her and comforted her and the day finally came that we set her free. And like God and we humans, my wife and I can not control her. We cannot force her to conform to our ideals and standards. Our daughter is now an adult, a free agent, self-sufficient and free to blaze her own trail and believe what she chooses to believe and choose to adhere to the moral teachings we professed, or not. .

    I firmly believe God chooses NOT to control us unless it is our wish to be control by Him.

    “Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58).”

    • Except for the “fear of God” initially expressed in personal obedience, the prize, a.k.a., is a ticket worth “life in all its fullness” right here on earth.

      “Paradox” is the devil’s advocate.

      (Matt. 16: 13-28)

  5. Before, there was a hierarchy of truth. The high priest of Egypt had the real truth. The scribes had secrets of the truth. Their initiated students had inklings. The people wallowed in ignorance.

    Moses, the revolutionary, changed all that. At Mount Sinai, all men, women and children, princes and commoners, priests and workers, had to be present. All received the same truth, all at once. Even the priestly rites were made public knowledge.

    Before, power and authority was based on withholding knowledge. In a Torah world, authority is established through universal knowledge.

    • Universal “knowledge of God” is exactly what the “new covenant”, i.e., the gospel of “the revelation of the son of Man” in his original glory, a.k.a., “I Am Who I Am”, viz.: God’s “life-giving Spirit”, is all about notwithstanding the suppression by centuries of Christian church and theology.

      (Jer. 31: 31-34; Luke 2: 25-35; 17: 22-37; Matt. 26: 26-29; 27: 50-56)

  6. It’s AN EITHER-OR situation, a.k.a., accepting the call to share God’s “life-giving Spirit, or cultivating the soil from which on has been formed.

    (Gen. 3: 22-24)

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