BY BEN COLON-EMERIC
This piece is part of syndicated series in collaboration with Yale Logos for Lent 2021. You can read the original piece at https://www.yalelogos.com/home/the-god-burrito-paradox.
Could God microwave a burrito so hot that He Himself could not eat it? Despite the inherent silliness involved with placing God in the same sentence as the word “burrito,” this is the basic paradox of omnipotence. As soon as you place your faith in an omnipotent God, you have to believe that God can do anything; but what about things that are logically impossible? Surely God could microwave a burrito to any temperature imaginable, but surely God could also eat a burrito at any imaginable temperature. Is the paradoxical burrito impossible for God? The most common theological response to questions like the God burrito paradox is to examine the validity of these paradoxical questions. At its core, the burrito question asks “Could God, who has unlimited power, give Himself limited power?” The act described here is not paradoxical, but logically incoherent. Asking for unlimited power to be limited is like asking for a circle with straight sides; it doesn’t mean anything because by definition a circle doesn’t have straight sides. In the same way, asking for an omnipotent God to be non-omnipotent is incoherent. The easy answer, then, is to say “God cannot perform an incoherent action because an incoherent action is not an action.”
When the God-burrito paradox is posed to argue that faith in an omnipotent God is logically incoherent (as in “The Simpsons”) pointing out the incoherence of the argument itself is a valid strategy. But other times, questions like this are posed in a genuine attempt to grapple with the impossibly difficult concept of omnipotence, and we need to have a genuine response for genuine curiosity. Take, for instance, the question, “If God is omnipotent, why do bad things happen?” It is a question everyone has likely asked at some point, and I found myself asking it again this week. As Christians, we believe in an all-powerful, all-loving God, but accepting that God is infinitely good is tremendously difficult in the face of tragedy.
The Passion of Christ is based on a paradoxical premise: Jesus is fully God and fully man. Without the incarnation, the death and resurrection of Christ has no meaning. For Jesus to die, Jesus must be fully man, since God cannot die, yet Jesus is also fully God. There is a reason why most of the heresies that plagued the early Church were about the nature of Christ: we cannot conceive of an individual being fully God and fully man. It is logically impossible for one thing to be fully two incompatible things at once. It would be like seeing a wall that is both completely red and completely blue. Not purple, which is Arianism, or red and blue stripes, which is Nestorianism, but fully blue and fully red. We are called to believe in something we cannot possibly conceive of; this is painful and difficult. When faced with one of the impossible questions that come with faith, we must fully accept the failure of our logical capabilities. How is Jesus fully God and fully man? I don’t know how, but I believe that He is. Why do bad things happen if God is good? I do not know why, but I believe that God is good regardless.
The fact that we ask these questions after every tragedy shows how hard this kind of acceptance is. And the fact that nonbelievers so often ask these questions to Christians shows that it’s even harder to communicate how such acceptance is possible—or even morally defensible. Belief in an omnipotent God requires that we believe beyond our capacity to understand. If that kind of faith seems unsatisfying, that’s because it is; in addition to faith, we need hope. My faith tells me that Jesus is fully God and fully human, while my hope in the goodness of God keeps me firm in that belief. We believe there is an answer to questions like “Why do bad things happen?” because of our hope in a loving God. Faith gives us the answer; hope gives us a way to accept that answer.
The solution to our original paradox is thus surprisingly simple. We understand that it is a paradox that defies our logic, and we accept it, not as a failure of our faith, but as a failure of human logic. Hoping in the goodness of God, we can tackle silly questions just like we tackle the most important. Could God microwave a burrito so hot that he himself could not eat it? Yes, he could. I cannot imagine how, but I believe that he has power beyond my imagination.
Ben is a junior studying Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Yale.