By Spencer D Gear
It is not unusual to hear from Christians in person or on the Internet, statements like this: ‘By definition, God is omnipotent. He can do anything and everything’. 
Is this a true statement? Can God do absolutely anything and everything? What is the truth?
The error of one Bible paraphrase
To answer that question, I recommend that we DO NOT accept this shocking paraphrase version of the Bible’s Ephesians 3:20 in The Message. It reads:
God can do anything, you know – far more than you could ever imagine or guess or request in your wildest dreams! He does it not by pushing us around but by working within us, his Spirit deeply and gently within us (emphasis added).
What does Ephesians 3:20 actually state? It pays to check it out, not in a one-man paraphrase by Eugene Peterson (The Message), but in a committee translation of the Bible:
Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us (ESV).
Now to Him who is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us (NASB).
Now unto him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us (KJV).
Now to him who is able to do all things more abundantly than we desire or understand, according to the power that worketh in us (Douay-Rheims).
Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine (NRSV).
Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us (NIV).
Now all glory to God, who is able, through his mighty power at work within us, to accomplish infinitely more than we might ask or think (NLT).
Glory be to him whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine (NJB).
Now to him who is able to accomplish far more than all we ask or imagine, by the power at work within us (NAB).
As the above committee translations, both Protestant and Roman Catholic, demonstrate, The Message paraphrase commits a very false impression and gives us a wrong translation when it begins with these words, ‘God can do anything, you know’. It is a shocking translation (paraphrase), based on the Greek text, but it gives a translation that is contrary to the teaching of Scripture about God’s actions.
‘God can do anything, you know’ – wrong!
In spite of this paraphrase assertion from The Message Bible, God cannot ‘do anything and everything’. To adapt this paraphrase to the truth, we must change it to read, ‘God cannot do anything, you know’. On this verse, The Message promotes false theology and a message that is contrary to the whole tenor of Scripture.
We know this because God has revealed in Scripture that this is not the case. He cannot do things that are contrary to his perfect nature. Here are examples from Scripture:
- He ‘cannot look at wrong’ (Hab 1:13 ESV);
- ‘He cannot deny himself’ (2 Tim 2:13);
- ‘It is impossible for God to lie’ (Heb 6:18);
- ‘God cannot be tempted by evil’ (Jas 1:13).
When we speak of God’s omnipotence, the biblical definition is not that He ‘can do anything and everything’ as this person has stated.
Henry C Thiessen (Courtesy Wheaton College)
Henry Thiessen defines God’s omnipotence:
By the omnipotence of God we mean that He is able to do whatever he wills; but since His will is limited by His nature, this means that God can do everything that is in harmony with His perfections. There are some things that God cannot do: (1) Such as are contrary to His nature as God [examples above]…. And (2) such as are absurd or self-contradictory [examples below]….
The possession of omnipotence does not, however, imply the exercise of His power, certainly not the exercise of all His power. God can do what He wills to do; but He does not necessarily will to do anything. That is, God has power over His power; otherwise He would act of necessity and cease to be a free being. Nor does omnipotence exclude but rather imply the power of self-limitation. God has limited Himself to some extent by the free will of His rational creatures. That is why He did not keep sin out of the universe by a display of His power; that is also why He does not save anyone by force (Thiessen 1949:126).
Wayne Grudem explains his understanding of omnipotence:
God’s omnipotence means that God is able to do all his holy will. The word omnipotence is derived from two Latin words, omni, ‘all,’ and potens, ‘powerful,’ and means ‘all-powerful’. There are no limited on God’s power to do what he decides to do…. There are, however, some things that God cannot do. God cannot will or do anything that would deny his own character. This is why the definition of omnipotence is stated in terms of God’s ability to do ‘all his holy will.’ It is not absolutely everything that God is able to do, but everything that is consistent with his character….
Although God’s power is infinite, his use of that power is qualified by his other attributes (just as all God’s attributes qualify all his actions). This is therefore another instance where misunderstanding would result if one attribute were isolated from the rest of God’s character and emphasized in a disproportionate way (Grudem 1999:98-99).
Then Grudem gives examples of what he can’t do by not lying (Tit 1:2), not tempted with evil (Jas 1:13), and can’t deny himself (2 Tim 2:13).
The omnipotence of God means that God is only able to do what He wills to do and what he wills is limited by his nature (holy character) and purposes. So God can only do all things that harmonise with the perfections of God Himself.
In Job 42:2 it is stated: ‘I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted’ ESV). Although this is an early revelation of God’s nature, it is clear that God’s doing ‘all things’ is tied to the ‘purpose of yours’. We know from elsewhere in Scripture that the purpose of God is to do what is consistent with his perfect nature.
In my understanding, there are other things that God cannot do. He can’t do what is absurd or self-contradictory. I’m thinking of examples such as creating a spirit that has material properties; making a stone that is sensitive and compassionate; developing a square circle, etc.
God cannot do evil?
Because ‘God cannot be tempted by evil’ (Jas 1:13) and his character is holy (see Lev 11:44-45; Hab 1:12; Jn 17:11; Heb 12:10; 1 Pt 1:15-16; Rev 4:8), we need to define those terms of evil and holiness.
What, then, is evil or the nature of evil?
As a prerequisite for any discussion of evil, moral evil must be distinguished from physical or natural evil. This essay uses the term “moral evil” to include both social offenses (ethics: murder, theft) and cultic sins (those offenses aimed directly against the deity: blasphemy, idolatry). Moral evil, therefore, whether its setting be cultic or social, when carried out may be considered a sin. That cultic and ethical values were one and the same in the Hebraic mind may be illustrated by the similar penalties exacted for the severest offenses in either category (death, being cut off). Cultic values are addressed in the first four of the Ten Commandments ( Exod 20:3-11 ; Deut 5:7-15 ) and by the first of Jesus’ “Great Commandments” ( Matt 22:37-40 ; Mark 12:30 ; Luke 10:27 ; cf. Deut 6:5 ); ethics are considered in the last six of the Ten Commandments ( Exod 20:12-17 ; Deut 5:16-21 ) and by the second “Great Commandment” ( Lev 19:18 ).
Accordingly, what is morally good is not what human society decides is in its best interest, but what the revealed will of God declares. There can be no biblical ethics that stand apart from cult nor a biblical morality apart from theology. Instead, morality is defined by theology, which carries within it certain cultic affirmations and prohibitions together with the ethical. For example, the same Decalogue that declares that stealing and murder are wrong likewise forbids idolatry and blasphemy. What makes these things wrong is not some abstract quality called “the good” as sought by philosophers in time past. Instead, what constitutes social evil is what is so defined by God, and in that respect (i.e., as to why a given act is good or bad), differs little from cultic evil. There are, therefore, no grounds for the oft-repeated error wherein the “moral law” (the ethical) is in some way distinguished from the “ceremonial law” (the cultic) in Israel’s values system. There can be no such distinction! That which is ethical is right because God has declared it so; the cultic portions of the Law likewise determine what is right for the same reason. Because of this, cult and ethics often appear fused in the Bible, as in Cain’s admission of guilt for a faulty sacrifice and the murder of his brother ( Gen 4:13 ); a similar fusion of the cultic and the ethical occurs in Genesis 15:16 (“the sin of the Amorites”), where idolatry and unethical activity are considered as one.
If God is the definer of what is good ( 2 Sam 10:12 ; Mark 10:18 ; Luke 18:19 ), right ( Gen 18:25 ), and just ( Job 34:12 ), it is not surprising that the Bible never attributes moral or cultic evil to him ( Job 34:10 ). Indeed, he hates evil ( Psalm 5:6 ) and is the avenging judge who punishes those who practice it ( Isa 31:2 ; Micah 2:1 ).
On the other hand, what ethicists term physical evil (or, natural evil) is often connected with the activities of God, and thus demonstrates the importance of defining these categories before discussing the subject further. An ethicist may distinguish these two types of evil thus: (1) moral evil, which is real if any intellectual being knowingly does anything he or she ought not to have done without being compelled to do it; and (2) physical evil, which is real if some beings have suffered in situations caused by nonrational beings, or through actions of rational beings acting nonrationally.
Matthew Halstead, in my understanding, gives a satisfactory biblical understanding of the nature of evil (I recommend a read of this entire article online):
Defining “evil” is a bit more difficult. One might be tempted to think that citing examples of evil might be easier than producing a definition of it. But for our purposes, this will not do. In examining the Problem of Evil, we need some sort of definition to run with. What, then, is evil?
There are two types of evil. First, there is moral evil. This is the product of an action (or inaction), which was initiated by a moral agent toward another person, who, in turn, may suffer from such action (or inaction). An example of this would be murder, which could be defined as “active moral evil.” By way of contrast, an example of “passive moral evil” would be watching a person drown in a bathtub, all the while not doing anything to prevent it.
The second type of evil is that of natural evil. This is where a moral agent is not involved. Examples of this could be earthquakes, hurricanes, or tsunamis. Clearly, moral agents are not involved in such natural occurrences.
Halstead reaches this:
Sin is willful rebellion against God. Originating within the ranks of the angelic hosts, evil sought its way into God’s image-bearers—mankind. After having chosen to disobey God’s command, Adam and Eve (and the entire human race) experienced suffering for the first time. Sin spread, and so suffering spread—all due to man’s choice.
But was Adam’s choice to sin a direct result of God “making” him sin? This is certainly not the case. If it were, then God would be the author of sin, thus making himself a sinner. But he is not. James reminds us that God cannot even be tempted to sin (James 1:13).
But again, was Adam’s choice to sin a result of some spontaneous, uninhibited will beyond God’s control? This could not have been the case for reasons spelled out previously.
But how do we reconcile all of this? Our goal as Christians should be to learn to affirm what the Bible affirms and deny what the Bible denies, for it is our highest authority. The Bible affirms God’s sovereignty over man’s actions (Genesis 50:20), and yet at the same time the Bible denies that God is the author, or doer, of sin (2 Corinthians 5:21; James 1:13).
So somehow God is able to ordain that evil exist, all the while abstaining from any spot of sinfulness. How all this works is a mystery. But let there be no mistake that it works. And that is what we have attempted to show.
Let there be hope, then. God is in control of all things, no matter the circumstance. This truth should give rise to joy and utter happiness in the heart of the Christian. All things will truly work out for our good and his glory, since “our God is in the heavens; He does whatever He pleases” (Psalm 115:3).
Soli Deo Gloria!
So evil, from a biblical perspective, has dimensions that are different from the person’s statement above that ‘evil is really nothing. It is the emptiness that is left when good is rejected. Evil “exists” because good was rejected’. The Scriptures take a very different line as Halstead has demonstrated.
The beginning of evil
How did evil commence? The Bible is very definite about the origin of evil as described in Genesis 2:16-17. Here is the temptation that was presented to the first man,
And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, 17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (ESV).
The future of the human race depended on what Adam, the man, did with this prohibition, ‘You shall not eat’. There were not 10 commandments or multiple laws for Adam to obey. There is just one and the whole human race was affected by what the man did here. The prohibition, ‘you shall not eat’, uses the strongest form of Hebrew prohibition, which H. C. Leupold translated to render this Hebrew grammatical construction according to its emphasis: ‘Thou must not eat’. Leupold explains of what happened when the man violated this prohibition and it happened ‘in the day’ that he did it:
For the thought actually to be expressed is the instantaneous occurrence of the penalty threatened, which is also again expressed in part by the imperfect with absolute infinitive, “dying though shalt die” = “certainly die.” This at once raises the question, “Why was this penalty not carried out as threatened?” We answer: “It was; if the Biblical concept of dying is kept in mind, as it unfolds itself ever more clearly from age to age.” Dying is separation from God. That separation occurred the very moment when man by his disobedience broke the bond of love. If physical death ultimately closes the experience, that is not the most serious aspect of the whole affair. The more serious is the inner spiritual separation. Oehler … rightly maintains: “For a fact, after the commission of sin man at once stepped upon the road of death.” The contention that the Old Testament does not know spiritual death, because it does not happen to use that very expression, is a rationalizing and shallow one, which misconstrues the whole tenor of the Old Testament….
It is a good thing to observe how definitely the account teaches that the first man was gifted with freedom of will. The moral sense must not first develope (sic) later; it is a part of the original heritage of man (Leupold 1942:128, 129).
God gave the man a symbolic representation of the knowledge of good and evil in the tree. We must never forget that Adam did not live in a sinful twenty-first century world. He was a sinless human being in a sinless world. It was in this condition that Adam, with his free will, received God’s warning, ‘You shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die’. So the nature of evil in these perfect circumstances was for the first man to seek after what God prohibited.
Adam (and, thus, all human beings) made in the image of God
What would cause God to take this kind of action? We need to understand that Adam was made in God’s image (see Genesis 1:26), so Adam had the God-given ability to choose, investigate, analyse, to be rational. Being made in God’s image, it should have been obvious to this man, Adam, what was contrary to what God’s nature was and required. Genesis 1:26 states that God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness’ (ESV). Leupold explained:
The double modifying phrase, “in our image, after our likeness,” requires closer study. It is in the last analysis nothing more than a phrase which aims to assert with emphasis the idea that man is to be closely patterned after his Maker….
To sum up from a slightly different angle we should like to append the thought that the spiritual and inner side of the image of God is, without a doubt, the most important one. It will hardly be safe to say that the body of man is also patterned after God, because God, being an incorporeal spirit, cannot have what we term a material body. Yet the body of man must at least be regarded as the fittest receptacle for man’s spirit and so must bear at least an analogy to the image, of God, an analogy that is so close that God and His angels choose to appear in human form when they appear to men (Strack). In fact, we are justified to go even so far as to say that whatever this man is said to have is in a far more real sense a reality in God. Here lies the basis for the propriety of all anthropomorphisms. If man has a hand, an ear, an eye, a heart, not only may these also be possessions of the Almighty; in a far truer sense such potentialities lie in God. Yet, let it be well marked, in saying this we in no sense ascribe corporeality to the Eternal One (Leupold 1942: 88, 90).
Evil must be contrasted with God’s holiness.
Holiness is given a prominent rank among God’s attributes. We see this in examples such as:
For I am the Lord your God. Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy. You shall not defile yourselves with any swarming thing that crawls on the ground. 45 For I am the Lord who brought you up out of the land of Egypt to be your God. You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy (ESV).
And my holy name I will make known in the midst of my people Israel, and I will not let my holy name be profaned any more. And the nations shall know that I am the Lord, the Holy One in Israel (ESV).
The holiness of God is also evident in other Old Testament passages: Josh 24:19; 1 Sam 6:20; Ps 22:3; Isa 40:23, and Hab 1:12. What about the NT? This emphasis is less frequent but it is certainly to be found in the NT in passages such as
but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, 16 since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy” (ESV).
See also John 17:11; Heb 12:10, and Rev. 4:8. God’s throne is established on the basis on his holiness as Psalm 47:8 affirms: ‘God reigns over the nations; God sits on his holy throne’. This emphasis also is found in Psalm 89:14 and 97:2.
But what is holiness?
By the holiness of God we mean that He is absolutely separate from and exalted above all His creatures, and that He is equally separate from moral evil and sin. In the first sense His holiness is not really an attribute that is coordinate with the other attributes, but is rather coextensive with them all. It denotes the perfection of God in all that He is. In the second sense it is viewed as the eternal conformity of His being and His will. In God we have purity of being before purity of willing. God does not will the good because it is good, nor is the good good because God wills it; else where would be a good above God or the good would be arbitrary and changeable. Instead, God’s will is the expression of his nature, which is holy.
Holiness occupies the foremost rank among the attributes of God (Thiessen 1949:128-129).
So, this evil action that Adam performed was the opposite of a good action, from God’s perspective. As we saw (above), this choice was against the very nature of the absolute holiness of God. In choosing against God, Adam would be adopting actions contrary to God’s instructions (disobedience), but the choice was utter contamination (evil) with the ultimate consequence of death – death as defined by God.
The contamination of sin which emanated from Adam polluted the whole human race. We see this demonstrated in these scriptural statements:
Job 15:14, ‘What is man, that he can be pure? Or he who is born of a woman, that he can be righteous? (ESV)
Psalm 51:5, ‘Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.
Jeremiah 17:9, ‘The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?’
Romans 3:9-18, ‘What then? Are we Jews[a] any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, 10 as it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one;
11 no one understands; no one seeks for God.
12 All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”
13 “Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.” “The venom of asps is under their lips.”
14 “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”
15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood; 16 in their paths are ruin and misery, 17 and the way of peace they have not known.”
18 “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
Romans 3:23, ‘For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’.
Romans 6:23, ‘For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord’.
So the Bible speaks of evil in terms of sin. And sin is both an internal condition, emanating from Adam, and a situation of committing acts against God’s law. God cannot do everything and anything. He can only make decisions that are consistent with his holiness. Therefore, evil actions cannot be part of God’s regime. That does raise the issue of God’s judgment and evil. However, since God by nature cannot commit sin and evil, all of his judgments are consistent with his holiness and justice/righteousness.
Grudem W 1999. Bible doctrine: Essential teachings of the Christian faith, J Purswell (ed). Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press.
Leupold, H C 1942. Exposition of Genesis, vol 1 (online). London: Evangelical Press. Available at: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/leupold/genesis.iii.html?bcb=right (Accessed 6 August 2013).
Thiessen, H C 1949. Introductory lectures in systematic theology. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
 Christian Forums, Christian Apologetics, ‘Why does evil exist? – moved from the Philosophy forum’, juvenissun #4, available at: http://www.christianforums.com/t7764645/#post63863104 (Accessed 6 August 2013).
 I presented some of this information in ibid., OzSpen #10.
 This is based on Thiessen (1949: 126).
 I recommend a full read of this excellent article.
Copyright © 2013 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 3 November 2015.