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”