A Professor’s Problem
In the March 25, 2019, edition of the New York Times, Peter Atterton, a professor of philosophy at San Diego State University, in his article entitled “A God Problem,” concluded that the concept of God, as viewed by most in the Western World, is an incoherent one. This is an exceedingly bold claim, and it will here be shown to be an incoherent one.
Mr. Atterton asks, “Does the idea of a morally perfect, all-powerful, all-knowing God make sense? Does it hold together when we examine it logically?” And then Mr. Atterton proceeds to discuss the concepts of omnipotence, omniscience, and moral perfection, but he does so in a glaringly illogical way.
He asserts that if God cannot create a stone that he cannot himself lift, he is not all powerful because he couldn’t create it, but on the other hand if he can create such a stone, he cannot be all-powerful, because he would not then be able to lift it. And Mr. Atterton seems to think that this supposed dilemma is destructive of the very claim that God is all-powerful! But such an assertion is much misguided. And furthermore, the assertion is based on a most non-philosophical definition of “omnipotence.” Mr. Atterton’s definition of “omnipotence” is that it is applicable to anything of which a person can conceive even if it makes no sense! Mr. Atterton’s definition of “omnipotence” is incoherent!
Has he not yet considered this? To say that God, to be God, would have to be able to do that which is not possible in the first place, and then to say that, when the impossible act was accomplished, the act would be understandable by humans in the second place, would be to define “omnipotence” so as to make it nonsensical! Mr. Atterton’s definition of “omnipotence” is a clear overreach. It applies to the ontologically impossible and the intellectually irrational. That is not “omnipotence.” That is the irrational contemplation of ontological chaos.
Thus, Mr. Atterton, in criticizing the concept of God as an incoherent concept itself, finds himself using a definition of “omnipotence” which is, in fact, incoherent. But as Thomas Warren showed the atheist, Antony Flew, in their 1976 debate on the existence of God, and which exact point Warren also put in his book, Have Atheists Proved There Is No God, “...power meaningfully relates only to what can be done, to what is possible of accomplishment—not to what is impossible!” To apply the idea of omnipotence to the ontologically impossible is not to correctly restrict the notion of omnipotence so as to redefine God out of existence, but it is to misapply the very concept of omnipotence itself, as Mr. Atterton has clearly done. To suggest that God’s omnipotence would imply that he can do the ontologically absurd is to promote an idea of omnipotence which itself is incoherent.
To illustrate, if Mr. Atterton simply imagines that God, if he exists, ought to be able, by virtue of his omnipotence, to both exist and not to exist, one can see the impoverishment of Mr. Atterton’s concept of omnipotence. It is as though, per Atterton’s view, God would have the power to continue to exist and yet at the same time have the power to terminate that existence. Too, God can’t make a “square circle” (with definitions of both “square” and “circle” continuing) any more than he can both make a universe (with the definition of “universe” continuing) that does not exist. Applying “omnipotence” to self-contradictory propositions is, by the law of contradiction, meaningless! Atterton’s view of omnipotence is incoherent!
But Mr. Atterton thinks that God could have created a world in which evil does not exist, and he declares that this seems to be logically possible. Yes, and according to Scripture, God has already done that. If by “evil” Mr. Atterton refers to sin and/or suffering, there was a moment when our ancestors lived in such a world. It was a paradise. But, the question becomes: could God create a world, including man, in which no man would ever commit a sin? And the answer is: No. Why not? It is so because man’s nature entails essentially the characteristic of free, conscious, moral selection or choice. Adam intellectually knew what sin was (to violate the will of God) before he became a sinner (a violator of that will by experience).
But when sin (the only moral evil) was committed by our ancestors, God drove them out into a world or atmosphere now conducive to their becoming what they needed to become since they had already become sinners. The atmosphere now needed was not that needed while they were yet innocent. That God could continue to provide paradise on earth for a man and woman now living in sin is not a coherent concept! Such would deny the significance of sin and thwart the purpose of man. The world into which Adam and Even were driven is the world in which Mr. Atterton and I both live, and it, from the Bible’s perspective, is an appropriate one given the condition of man on earth. Man used his free will to sin against God, and man must use his free will to return to God, but only God could make a man responsible and accountable and put him in a world where the world itself would not become his priority focus and ultimate desire, but which rather would help him to determine his course, and to determine that course freely. No normal person enjoys feeling pain, and this is by divine design. According to Scripture, man is to seek for God (not become his critic or denier), and there is enough sorrow on earth to make man long for something far better than what he has here, and there is enough joy on earth to make man appreciate his life.
Then Mr. Atterton tackles the concept of “knowledge.” He suggests that if God is omniscient, then he would have to know at least as much as we know, and such knowledge would imply moral imperfection. How? We commit sin, and Mr. Atterton misguidedly concludes that for God to know our sin, he would have to experience sin. But this is plainly false. And, of course, Atterton presents no proof of his mere claim. He asserts, “But one cannot know lust and envy unless one has experienced them,” and so if God has experienced them, he must be a sinner.
But the failure of Mr. Atterton to make significant distinctions just here is obvious. There is a difference between knowing something by intellectual comprehension and knowing something by experiencing something. When biblical theists assert that God knows all there is to know, we do not mean to be saying that God, by knowing how other sentient beings feel, feels from the same source as they do. God has his own personal identity that distinguishes him from the rest of creation. If God can know “our” thoughts (and they are really our thoughts), then he can know them without originating them! This, by the way, is the only way that human accountability can be established. And neither Mr. Atterton nor I can fully account for the marvel of a human free will act. But the denial of human free will that renders a person actually responsible for his acts is already in our time a view being taken by at least one atheist, who is, at least being consistent with evolutionary theory.
If God can know everything about a rock, that intellectual grasp does not mean that God knows, by experience, what a rock feels like. Of course, a rock doesn’t have feelings. Well then, does God know how it is and why it is that a rock has no feelings? Yes, he certainly does. To be God, he would certainly have to know all about a rock including the absence of self-awareness and feeling. Ah, yes, but one might say that humans do have thoughts and feelings. That is right, but the Creator of human feeling and free will is, after all, if the definition of “being human” is actually different from the definition of “being divine,” and if the definition of “free will” is actually a human trait properly applied to a human being, then God is able to produce human autonomy. The feelings, acts, and thoughts of humans are their own by divine creation according to Scripture. God doesn’t have to become a rock to know what a rock is. He doesn’t have to become a “rocker” any more than he has to become a “sinner” to know what a sinner is. To suggest that he would have to experience the nature and feeling or absence of feeling in something he has made in order to know what he has made or what the made has now become is to deny the distinction between knowledge and act. And to deny the definitional difference between intellectual knowledge and act is incoherent. For me to know what it means to steal does not and cannot in and of itself make me a thief! God can divinely know how a sinner feels without feeling guilty, and to suggest that God cannot know how a sinner feels without himself feeling guilty is to make a claim that is false and, of course, an assertion that no philosopher can prove.
Scripture tells us that it is impossible for God to lie. But in knowing his own nature and in knowing the nature of truth, God surely knows what a lie is. And he knows that without becoming a liar. And if God can know what a lie is without becoming a liar, he can just as well know what lust and envy are without becoming lustful and envious. To suggest that divine participation in the realization of the experiential actualization of human feeling, while humans are involved in sin, is necessary to the definition of “omniscience” is to suggest an absurdity! To suggest that for God to know the sins of man means that he must be a participant in sin is to suggest an incoherent concept!
Interestingly, it is through the incarnation of Christ that God tells us that he was going to know man’s sinful condition in a more intimate way than by intellectual comprehension alone (in order to help man to deal with his own sin), but it would NOT be by experiencing sin itself but by experiencing TEMPTATION to sin and yet without committing even one sin. This the Bible teaches us is the way that redemption is possible and that it was, on God’s part, accomplished. God could not save while becoming a sinner himself! Mt. Atterton, whether he realizes or not, is actually implying that if there is a God, he would not be able to save anyone from sin! Since Atterton is claiming that God by his omniscience would be a sinner himself, he would then be in no position to save human sinners from their own sin. This is a most ludicrous philosophical position, and it is a most incoherent concept! And the only way for him to get around this criticism is to redefine the significance of “salvation” as he has already redefined “omnipotence” and “omniscience.”
Mr. Atterton treats then on malice and suggests that if humans can cause pain to others for the sake of their own pleasure, then God does, too. And he concludes that God is characterized by “malicious enjoyment.” What nonsense! Again, as Thomas Warren taught us, every single instance of either human or animal pain in this world derives from some condition or conditions essential to this world’s fulfilling its purpose as an environment of “soul-making.” Mr. Atterton needs to give more serious thought as to what, after all, the purpose of this world is. It is clear to me that he does not at all know. This world is not Mr. Atterton’s final home, and he should know this by reflecting upon his own human nature. And the purpose of this world is different from the purpose of the fast approaching eternity to which Mr. Atterton and I are both travelling. If Mr. Atterton is willing to attempt proof of his position that the concept of “God” is an incoherent one, I would be more than happy to engage him in a four- night oral debate on the issue.
Mac Deaver completed his undergraduate work at Oklahoma Christian University. He received the M.A. in Philosophy of Religion and Christian Doctrine under the professorship of the late Dr. Thomas B. Warren from Harding Graduate School of Religion. Deaver has done graduate work in Philosophy at University of Dallas, and later received the Ph.D. in Christian Apologetics from Tennessee Bible College under the professorship of Dr. Warren. He is a recognized public debater on various philosophical issues and biblical doctrines and is author of The Hopelessness of Humanism, published by the Warren Center.
Publisher’s Note: Given the invitation offered by Mr. Deaver to engage in debate with Mr. Atterton, both were contacted by Warren Apologetics Center with the offer to host such a four-night debate on a university campus. As of the publication of this article, Deaver has accepted, Atterton has not responded.