I remember a day a few years ago when I was mowing my lawn and thinking about the idea of God’s omnipresence (like you do), and I came across an interesting conundrum.
If God’s omnipresence means that He exists everywhere, then how do we avoid pantheism?
Pantheism teaches that the universe and everything in it essentially is God. Orthodox Christianity, however, has always taught that God is in some sense distinct from (other than) His creation. To quote Father John J. Cavanaugh, or at least the film version of him, “In thirty-five years of religious study, I’ve come up with only two hard, incontrovertible facts. There is a God, and I’m not Him.” How then can we say that God exists everywhere? After all, if there is anything that we can point to and say, “That is not God,” then haven’t we found a place where He isn’t?
Anyhow, I don’t want to spend too much time focusing on omnipresence per se. But this idea did serve to spark other inquiries that I’ve had about the nature of God, or, more specifically, His attributes. I often hear people say that God is an infinite God. His love is infinite. His power is infinite. His knowledge is infinite. And so on.
However, in recent years, I’ve come to question these claims. In fact, I’ve come to doubt them.
Meh… I’ll just go ahead and say it. I don’t think God is actually infinite. And, you know what? That’s okay.
Now, I am sure that many of you, perhaps most of you, would disagree. But, in order to talk about why I don’t think God is actually infinite, let’s take a moment to talk about the concept of infinity.
We tend to kick around words in our everyday speech that technically mean something different than what we are using them for. When someone says, “Ugh, I hate her for stealing my boyfriend. She’s the worst!” we know that in all likelihood she (whomever she may be) is not actually the worst. Stealing a person’s boyfriend is a terrible thing. But there are much worse things that someone could do. So, yeah, we get the sentiment. But, technically it’s not a true statement. A similar response could be given to claims such as, “I stood in line at the DMV forever!” No, you didn’t. Maybe you stood in line for a really long time. But not forever; otherwise you’d still be there.
Anyhow, in typical vernacular, it is completely understandable to use such hyperboles and superlatives to describe things in an extreme way. And for the most part nobody cares, since we get what people mean by such things and there’s not a whole lot riding on them. However, there are times when being technically correct with our claims has a lot more importance. For instance, when you are trying to demonstrate that your beliefs in and about God are intellectually tenable, and not just spiritual nonsense. And speaking of nonsense, let’s talk about Hilbert’s Hotel.
Since I don’t want to take the time to write out the whole scenario, and since it’s easier to understand if you just watch it, here’s a really short (about a minute long) video:
What this thought experiment does is illustrate the difficulty (or perhaps impossibility) of there ever existing an actual infinite, since (as the video describes) you could always add one or more (∞) rooms. Now, I want to be clear about something. There is a difference between an actual infinite and a potential infinite.
A potential infinite is something with the possibility to progress or perpetuate without end. So, for instance, imagine a line. (If you have difficulty doing this, I’ve provided one below for you to use.) Now, divide the line in half. Okay, do it again. And again. And again.
This is an example of a potential infinite. The line itself is finite – it has a beginning and an end. But the ability to divide that line in half is infinite. No matter how many times you divide it in half, you could always do it one more time. However, since you will never reach a point at which you’ve exhausted all of the possible divisions, this is not an actual infinite. In order for there to be an actual infinite, there would have to have been an infinite number of divisions already taken place…. which of course couldn’t happen, since you could always just divide it in half one more time.
So, as best as I can figure, actual infinites
do not cannot exist. Which calls into question the idea of God being actually infinite. Now, this is not to say that God is not potentially infinite, meaning that He possesses infinite potentiality and could do or know anything logically possible if the need arose. It is simply to say that it is impossible that God does possess infinite actuality.
Now, some might say this is an example of personal incredulity, which claims that simply because I cannot understand something it must not be true. That’s a fallacy, and it’s a bad thing to do.1 However, this is not that.
An example of the personal incredulity fallacy would be if I were to say that since I do not understand quite how calculus works, it must not be true. This is not because of any limitation on calculus itself, but simply my lack of knowledge or intellect. However, I do have a pretty good grasp on basic math, so I can say that 2+2 does not equal 9. It is not the case that 2+2 does equal 9, and I merely don’t understand how. Rather, it is simply impossible for 2+2 to equal 9. No matter how vast our intellect and ken, combining two things with two other things will always necessarily equal four things.
This is essentially the difference between a paradox, something that at first glance seems to be logically impossible, and a contradiction, something that actually is logically impossible.
Keeping all of this in mind, I think it’s fair to say that there are a good many things that are simply impossible, even for God. For instance, it is impossible for God to make a four-sided triangle. A triangle, by definition, has three sides. If a triangle had a fourth side, it simply wouldn’t be a triangle anymore. Likewise, God cannot make a married bachelor, since bachelors are by definition unmarried.
We could apply this line of thinking to God Himself with the question, can the statements “God does exist” and “God does not exist” both be true? Even if we set aside the widely held theological idea that God is a necessary being,2 I’m fairly confident that the answer is still no. If we are keeping the same definition for “God” and “exist” in both statements, then the two are contradictory and cannot both be true.
But what do we do about the Bible’s claims? I mean, the Bible itself tells us that God is infinite… right?
Now, while many people in our society couldn’t care less about what the Bible says, I can sympathize with this concern. Maybe this is some of my inner Evangelical coming out, but I still process my theology through the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, which means that even though I no longer see Scripture as an irrefutable trump card in the game of beliefs, I still believe that it is a significant force to be reckoned with.
As such, I would nevertheless maintain that the Bible never says that God is infinite. Scripture certainly teaches that God is not limited to the physical realm (Acts 17:24), and not represented by physical objects (Ex 20:4). Moreover, the Psalmist proclaims that there is no place we could go where God is not (Ps 139:7-12). But, like it or not, that’s not quite the same thing as having an infinite presence, since after all we live in a finite (albeit infinitely expanding) universe. Likewise, the Bible teaches that God knows and observes all that there is (Heb 4:13); however, this is not the same as saying that God knows things that are logically impossible to know, such as what a four-sided triangle looks like, or even the certain outcome of free (i.e., uncertain) choices. And, yes it is true that the prophets depict God as saying, “Behold, I am the Lord, the God of all flesh; is anything too difficult for Me?” (Jer 32:27). But is Jeremiah really trying to argue a philosophical point about God’s ability to accomplish that which is logically (and not just physically) impossible?3
As one of my friends once said, “Scripture describes God’s attributes in fairly concrete, historically-rooted terms rather than abstract philosophical terms, so we need to be careful about reading the latter into the former.”
One interesting passage to consider on this issue is Psalm 147:5:
Great is our Lord and abundant in strength;
His understanding is infinite.
At first glance it may appear that the Bible is attributing the quality of infinity to God’s understanding. However, the Hebrew phrase used here is ayin mispar, which is variably translated “infinite” (NASB), “has no limit” (NIV), or “beyond measure” (ESV, NRSV). We find this phrase cropping up elsewhere in the Bible, often translated “innumerable” (Job 21:33; Pss 40:12; 104:25; Jer 46:23). While these passages certainly describe things that are effectively countless, such as sea creatures, these things are definitely still finite in a strictly mathematical sense.
On the whole, the Bible presents us with a picture of a God that is great and mighty, captivatingly beautiful, unsurpassably powerful, incomprehensibly intelligent and knowledgeable, and who is present and with us no matter where we go. Nevertheless, while these are rhetorical points made to present a superlative picture of God, they simply are not philosophical or mathematical in nature, and so we shouldn’t take them as such.
On a practical note, I don’t think that this means we need to go correcting every preacher and worship leader that refers to God or one of His attributes as “infinite.” Like I mentioned above, hyperbole is a common part of how we speak, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It is simply a way of showing that we think God is awesome in a way that goes beyond what we can fully comprehend or articulate.
My point in all of this is simply that we should be careful to avoid saying that God is infinite when engaging in theological debate and dialogue. We can say that God is ultimate, maximal, supreme, paramount or utmost. However, as a point of apologetics, it simply does not do to claim that God is something illogical, namely infinite.
So all of this leaves us with a number of important questions to mull over.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this! You can either leave your own thoughts and questions in the comments below, respond to whatever social media post directed you here, or shoot me an email.
Thanks for reading!
1: In my opinion, people (particularly Evangelicals) will often use accusations of the personal incredulity fallacy as a way of holding onto beliefs that are actually contradictory.
2: For a great (and brief) explanation of what I mean when I use the term "necessary" check out this awesome video from Philosophy Tube.
3: If you're interested, you can read about how I understand God's relationship to time by clicking here.