Can God Sin?

Can God Sin?

Can God Sin?

This question is typically asked in debates about God’s omnipotence. If God is all-powerful, the argument runs, he must be able to do what he wants – including sin, should he so choose. If God cannot sin, it is contended, then his freedom and power are curtailed – meaning in effect that he is not omnipotent. In order to preserve God’s omnipotence therefore it is argued that God has the potential not only to sin but also to contradict or even to annihilate himself, even though he may never actually get around to doing any of these things.

There are numerous problems with this line of reasoning. It betrays in the first instance a lack of understanding of what the term ‘God’ means, at least in Christian thought (in Greek mythology the gods frequently indulge in ‘sinful’ behavior, whilst in Norse and Aztec mythologies the gods can even die off like humans).

In Christian theology a ‘being’ that, potentially speaking, might lie, cheat, commit rape, self-deceive, or die could not be ‘God’ because, like man, he would have a sin nature and also would not be eternal.

Moreover to suggest that God has the potential to sin would be to locate the source or origins of sin within the Godhead – not in the disobedience of God’s creatures, which is where it is located in the bible (cf Genesis chapters 1-3).

To say that God has the capacity to sin would be to affirm that he has the potential to be unholy which is excluded by the very definition of the word ‘God.’ If, however, it were true that God might potentially be unholy then we would have to conclude that something within the divine nature is attracted to impurity and lawlessness, which again falls short of the Christian definition of God.

Similarly, if God had the capacity to destroy himself this would merely prove that he was not in fact omnipotent in the first place and therefore also not eternal. Such a being in this case could not be called ‘God.’

There is clearly a very high price to pay for those who wish to defend God’s unconditional omnipotence. For Christians such a God could never be trusted to deliver on his promises so long as there was even the remotest possibility that he might renege on them. For after all a God who can potentially do ‘anything’ could go back on his word, right?

Christian theology in fact does not contend that God must be able to do anything in order to be omnipotent for this would involve contradicting his own nature. If God were ‘holy’ and ‘immortal’ he could not be their opposite, as this would negate his moral character and being (i.e. simply cancel God out).

Nor for this reason can God create ‘square circles’ or make 1+1=3, for this would be to abolish the very possibility of meaning itself. In such a universe ‘significance’ or ‘reality’ would be pure illusion—including language, which would refer to nothing in particular because it might refer to anything in general.

We know however from Genesis chapter 2 that when God invited Adam to name all the creatures they were called the things he named them: squirrels and fruit bats were squirrels and fruit bats and could not be anything else.

When God creates he fashions a world of intrinsic meaning and purpose where things have essences. Our uniqueness as human beings, made in God’s image and likeness, is nullified the moment we say we might equally be hedgehogs or wombats, as 1+1 might, willy-nilly, equal 2 or 4 or 10, depending on the whim of the Creator.

To say that God is omnipotent does not mean that he can do what he likes. He cannot contradict his nature or create a world in which contradictions function as logical truths.

In this connection it is highly significant that in Genesis ‘chaos’ precedes creation. Chaos is the confusion or cacophony of every possibility endlessly vying to express itself but endlessly cancelling itself out.

In creation God harnesses, delimits these possibilities, so as to make it feasible for life to flourish. To speak of God’s omnipotence therefore is to speak of the ways in which God is logically all-powerful. This precludes his contradicting his nature, on the one hand, or subverting the order of creation on the other.

To view God’s inability to do certain things as a weakness or argument against his omnipotence is fallacious in the extreme. God, after all, cannot hate. Yet this would be ‘inability’ or ‘weakness,’ or whatever we might care to call it, has been the salvation of mankind.

Dr Brendan Devitt is originally from Ireland and studied Theology, Medieval Greek and Byzantine history at Dublin and Oxford universities and teaches Greek and Hebrew. He is married to Sheralee and finds ways to promote a deeper understanding of Scripture among Christians.

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