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Can G‑d Create a Rock That's Too Heavy for Him to Lift? (Longer Version)

Can G‑d Create a Rock That's Too Heavy for Him to Lift? (Longer Version)

The Omnipotence Paradox

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(If you want to read a quick reply to this question, I recommend you read this article.)

This, in many different versions, is a very old question. It's a kind of paradox we face when dealing with the concept of an all-powerful being. Some attribute it to the Moslem thinker, Ibn Rushd (Averroes). More than anyone, it was Maimonides who answered it with his "negative theology"—which was later adopted by Thomas D'Aquinas and became standard Roman Catholic theology, as well.

Negative theology is much easier to understand if you are familiar with Aristotelian logic—which gave birth to the question to begin with. But I'll try to describe it here in short.

In Aristotelian thought, everything is a duality. This was the way of thinking about things up until the time of Rene Descartes and the early rationalists who began to discuss matter as a measurable quality. Until then, there was (1) the thing itself and (2) its qualities, or predicates.

For example: Water flows. The wind blows. Rocks are heavy, etc. But flowing is not water, blowing is not wind and heaviness is not rocks. So there is water, and there is this quality that it has to flow. But the water itself is not the flowingness of the water. Neither is the wind its blowingness. Or the rock its heaviness. And the same with everything else that exists: The qualities of a thing are not the thing itself—rather, the thing itself has qualities.

Maimonides realized that this could not apply to G‑d, since G‑d is a perfect oneness. A perfect oneness can't have any dualities. So to say that G‑d is kind, or G‑d is wise, or G‑d is strong—that's not going to work, since it implies dualities and multiplicities in G‑d.

But nevertheless, all these things—kindness, wisdom, strength and more—all come from G‑d, since He created all things. Like the psalmist rhetorically asks, "The one who implants the ear doesn't hear?" So if hearing exists in the creatures that He created, He must also have a quality of hearing. The same with wisdom and kindness—for us to have these qualities, they must first begin with G‑d.

So Maimonides answered that G‑d really has no attributes. When we attribute strength, kindness, wisdom, etc. to G‑d, what we mean is that He does not lack these qualities, since, after all, they also extend from Him—as does everything extend from Him. But He cannot be described by any of them.

In fact, Maimonides went so far as to say that G‑d cannot even be said to have existence. We cannot say that G‑d exists—since that would imply that there are two things, G‑d forbid, about G‑d: That He is G‑d and that He exists. Rather, G‑d cannot be predicated with any quality, even that of existence.

Although Maimonides himself notes that this is a matter that the human mind can never truly fathom, nevertheless Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi ("The Alter Rebbe") provides two helpful metaphors: One from the relationship of the sun and its light, another from the relationship of speech to the human psyche.

Let's say you see a ray of light from the sun shining in through your window. So you ask this ray, "Where did you come from?" It answers, of course, that it came from the sun. So you ask it, "Let me see what you look like as you are in your source within the sun." So it takes you there (in your nuclear fusion resistant suit) and you look about and—hey, there's no ray here! But why? Doesn't the ray start here? Yet all there is here is one single source of light. The entity of the ray is entirely absorbed within that oneness.

Same thing (almost) with a word of speech. Where did that word you spoke come from? Well, it arose out of a feeling you had, or some perspective of things you had in your mind. But there, in that raw feeling or mental perspective, there are no words. Yet words arise from that place.

So too—but in an infinitely more perfect way—in G‑d's perfect oneness there is no wisdom, no understanding, no knowledge, no kindness, no strength, no nothing. Just a perfect oneness. Yet from that oneness, all things arise. Go figure. Or don't. As Maimonides implies and the R. Schneur Zalman spells out, the human mind only understands things as they are within it. We are composites of many different qualities, so we cannot conceive a perfect oneness—just as we cannot conceive of something that has only one side but no back, so we cannot conceive of that which neither is nor is not. Or that which is neither strong nor not strong, yet from which all strengths extend.

Which brings us back to your original question—which you should now see just does not apply to G‑d: If we were talking about a human being, or an angel, or any sort of created being, we could ask, "So, how strong is it? Can it lift this? What about this?"—and we could measure that strength in those terms.

But when it comes to G‑d, none of this applies. If something is strong, or heavy, that comes from Him. If it can be lifted or not lifted, that also comes from Him. But none of this in any way measures who He is or what He is—since He is not measured by any qualities whatsoever.

Just to note: Some thinkers have asserted that this paradox proves that an omnipotent being is impossible. Yet mathematicians in the 20th century have come to accept that every system will of necessity contain some paradox. When your train of thought runs up against a paradox, it doesn't mean you're totally off track. It just means that there's a higher track, beyond your whole system of thought. That's the case here as well: This paradox is just a way of pointing out that the concept of G‑d lies outside and beyond our systems of logic.

I've provided a long-winded answer for the inquisitive mind. Sometimes, however, it's not a philosopher asking the question, it's just some smart-aleck. But the smart-aleck also deserves an answer. So you can simply say, "Sure G‑d can create a rock so heavy that even He cannot lift it. G‑d can do anything. And He could even lift that rock that He cannot lift as well."

That'll send 'em flying. And it's not untrue. Because it's simply saying that G‑d does not fit into any of our standard ways of thinking. G‑d is not a thing—He is the source of all things. The tools of measurement of things simply do not apply to Him.

Everything we learn or think about has to have some practical application. Here too, as well: Every day we pray to G‑d to heal the sick, feed the poor, knock sense into the politicians, and for all the other needs of humankind. Yet we preface all this by praising G‑d for being the ultimate in kindness and mercy and for being in complete control of all things. So if He is so kind and has so much control, why is the world such a mess that we have to ask Him to fix it up?

The answer is that G‑d created in the world a rock so heavy He cannot lift it. It's called our human free choice to make a mess of His world. And in our prayer, we ask that nevertheless, He should still pick it up. He should pick all of us up, and He will, as long as we pitch in just a little.

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, a senior editor at Chabad.org, also heads our Ask The Rabbi team. He is the author of Bringing Heaven Down to Earth. To subscribe to regular updates of Rabbi Freeman's writing, visit Freeman Files subscription. FaceBook @RabbiTzviFreeman Periscope @Tzvi_Freeman .
Artwork by David Brook. David lives in Sydney, Australia, and has been selling his art since he was in high school. He is currently painting and doing web illustrations.
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Mitchell Cohen, DDS Lake George March 23, 2016

Duality ? B'H are Enantiomers the physical manifestation of duality Rabbi ? Chag Purim Sameach !! 💖 Reply

Anonymous September 18, 2015

Can Jewishness be "undone"? In other words, can a Jew become a Goy? Reply

Andrew Haring January 29, 2015

If, in time, the censored version - "G-d" - were to become the standard written form of the word, would it then become blasphemous? If so, which of the two remaining letters would you strike out? Is not the very act of referring to G-d the same as naming Him/her/it/them? Would it not be safer simply never to refer to G-d at all? That's why I'm an atheist - to avoid the blasphemy of seeking to attribute qualities to mysteries we cannot solve. Reply

Craig Hamilton Sandwich March 24, 2014

Don’t Underestimate Hashem I have seen enough miracles to believe that we should not limit the power of Gd to work though us. Does He not animate the entire universe, juggling the planets, and beyond? I have seen enough to believe. Once while doing carpentry I saw a power sander turn on without being plugged in or having batteries. It scampered across the floor for seemingly no reason at all and freaked out the guy I was working with. The same thing happened to me with a light at my apartment. The light was completely unplugged, with no batteries and it turned on for seemingly no reason at all. Once during a science experiment, my beaker literally jumped up off the hot plate and smashed into pieces in front of the entire class and to my dismay. Another friend of mine can witness that almost completely inexplicably a vile start to move without any known stimulation. These things may be possible to explain, but they aren't unlikely, just as Gd probably won’t pick up a boulder though He may. Reply

Moses Nachman Los Angeles March 23, 2014

I read Rabbi Freeman's answer, but honestly do not understand it. About all I really got from his words, is that G-d manifests things without having the qualities of that which He is manifesting. So for example at one time, time did not exist, but then suddenly it did, in order to make Creation possible, yet G-d Himself does not have the quality of time. I am not sure I am even describing what the Rabbi said above, nor do I get how this ties into the heavy rock being lifted question. On the other hand, I usually see much more value in the practical and immediate, and so even if i do not understand this whole topic, it may not be worthy losing any sleep over it. Reply

Anonymous March 23, 2014

Amazing article!! Reply

Melzora Towne January 2, 2013

This is my favorite answer to the rock question. I get into this debate with my husband often. He often asks me if G-d can do anything...,
Then he promptly mentions the rock question and my answer is always the same.
Can G-d create a rock that he can not pick up? The argument is, if he can do anything... can he create a rock that he can not pick up and if he can do anything couldn't he pick it up also... He is the rock. Therefore he has accomplished both tasks at once. I am not sure if hubby does not understand the concept or he just wants to see if my answer is the same because we come to this debate time and time again.
Then he likes to throw out the one if G-d knows everything did he know Eve would eat the forbidden fruit.... round and round we go. :) Reply

Anonymous nilambur, kerala July 6, 2012

god human being being an imperfect being is confused of even his existence.because we are all imperfect. Reply

David Levant Emerson, N.J. July 6, 2012

Free Will G-D gave us all free will because he has free will.Yes,this is a heavy rock ,but G-D can lift it easier if we all helped him.Even if some decide not to help,who says G-D can't use a lever to compensate for the rest. Reply

Patti Silver Spring July 5, 2012

Heavy rock 2012 Just read this Rabbi F.---
great article....comforting yet true in it's explanation and insight, if we all just listened, Jews and non-Jews alike. Reply

Rob W. Pittsburgh, PA / U.S.A. April 10, 2012

Paradoxes Is the human mind so brilliant (and yet so dim) that it can generate a concept beyond its own comprehension? Yes it is, and that concept is G-d.

By the way, Rabbi, great article. Reply

Clay Lansdowne, PA December 7, 2010

Another valid answer from a Catholic Magazine "Our reply is that God can indeed do all things, but self-contradiction is not a thing. God cannot make a four-sided triangle, because the terms contradict each other. A four-sided triangle is meaningless; it is not a thing at all, it is nothing. A weight that an almighty Being cannot lift is as much a contradiction in terms as a four-sided triangle. It is nothing. And (to give an old text a new emphasis) nothing is impossible to God.

Because God is infinite, there is no distinction between his attributes and himself. Take knowledge, and begin with our own. My knowing is something that I do, but it is not myself. It is a considerable limitation. If only my knowledge were myself, I should be knowing all the time, simply by being; I should not have to make a distinct effort to know; I should never forget. But, as it is, my knowledge is less than myself; I am finite.

God is His Knowledge, He doesn't have it. Therefore, He can't do things that don't make sense. He can do every THING. Reply

Clay Lansdowne, PA December 6, 2010

Paradox Oh my friend, paradox is no sign of error. By definition, paradox is not the same as logical contradiction. It is a paradox to say that mercy and justice are both good, yet they both are. It is a paradox to say that light is both a particle and a wave, and yet it is. It is a paradox to say that Man is both an animal and more than animal, yet he is. These are all clearly true paradoxes. The fact that they're more difficult to understand than other truths doesn't make them any less true. Reply

nameless Clearlake November 22, 2010

Paradox A 'paradox' is a sign of error! Tthe train of thought went rumbling off down a side-track and hit the dead-end in paradox-land!
The 'error' usually is found at the fundamental level, the axioms, the 'assumptions'! Reply

Elaine Beloeil, Qc via jewishlearninginstitute.com November 19, 2010

Foolish! Humans are so full of pride, And that is the reason why we attempt to answer the un-answerable question. We are born with the thirst of knowledge (G-D gave it to us).
I believe G-d is having a good chuckle. Reply

Anonymous Blacksburg, VA November 14, 2010

Genesis 1. Interesting article...not sure it properly addresses the paradox, though. Here's my stab at it.

1. Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't all of "creation" made of the word of G-d? To that end, isn't the rock just an extension of the breath of G-d? How could he even be separate from the theoretical "created" rock in order to attempt to lift it? It lifts as his word shifts and changes, it changes as he breathes in the same way that we exchange carbon monoxide for oxygen. It is inevitable that it will either be lifted or not lifted. The question is thus fundamentally flawed.

2. Or, an alternative explanation (that is less existential and may sit better with most readers) is that by definition, the feature of being all-powerful means being not lacking in any power. If we accept the premise of omnipotence, then we accept it and the answer is "no." G-d can always create an infinitely larger rock, and he will always retain mastery over it because it is his creation.

Thoughts? Reply

Anonymous Clearlake November 2, 2009

bad question The question itself is flawed and fallacious in several ways and, unfortunately, the person raising the question has not taken the time to truly think this problem through.

Problem #1: this question commits the fallacy known as a loaded question. This is a no win situation because the question itself starts with a false assumption and is therefore a "loaded" question.

Problem #2: this question commits a categorical fallacy. The question itself is incoherent and meaningless. The question is nonsense because it treats God as if He were two instead of one. The phrase 'stronger than' can only be used when two subjects are in view...Since God is only one...it makes no sense to ask if He is stronger than Himself.

Problem #3: this question commits a straw man fallacy. This line of reasoning is attacking a distorted concept of Biblical omnipotence and is therefore guilty of the straw man fallacy.

There is no smart answer to a dumb question. Reply

danny lodon September 7, 2009

but if...? but if he moved the mountairns and the seas, what you are saying is not true.

my view is that G-D is limited in the sense that he cannot learn, die, or age. he simply cannot because this conflicts with his essence. yet again, his very essence is also us because, if we are not seperate from him, we are part of him and thus by us not being able to lift the rock, being part of him means that he also has been unable to pick up the rock. the standard thinking could only be applied if G-D was a seperate being from us. Reply

Dr. Amy Austin Psy.D., LMFT La Quinta, CA/USA June 8, 2009

Keeping it simple... I just like to not have to think about all the rhymes and reasons that G-d exists. I know He does and let the process of life unfold. Proactively of course! While loving to learn, attend classes, participate as an observant Jew, I am comfortable in knowing the unknowable. Reply

sue Kanata, ON June 8, 2009

For Steve I think that you simply nailed the issue, Steve. When I think of the immensity of the immediate series of universes that are scientifically demonstrated to us, and what must continue in spaces too vast for humans to comprehend, the objects that we believe or perceive to be made of rock should be no more than the florets of scent or the pollens and moisture of our own atmosphere - a silk environment just like the space that we call livable.
Just because we see these aggregates and call them rock does not mean they are any more than the living tissue of a great being, in some way embedded or intouch with what we perceive to be life. Reply

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