Divine Miracles and Divine Limitations Featured

Six years ago little Maddie McCann was abducted from her holiday home in Portugal. Her parents’ agony was indescribable. The local cops found nothing. Worldwide search led nowhere. The child is still missing and Scotland Yard is now conducting a renewed investigation. Will she ever turn up alive?

Praying for Maddie is what I do, day and night. But... a puzzle torments me. Does it make sense? The girl is either dead or alive. Fine if it is the latter but what if she is not? What if the beast who took her extinguished her young life? Could you pray a prayer like this: ‘O God, please, make it so that little Maddie may not have died?’ That what has happened may not have happened? Could God undo the past, in other words?


‘Of course! God is omnipotent. He has the power to do everything. Otherwise he would not be God, would he?’ Yes. God’s omnipotence is part of his definition. But that all-powerfulness is not unqualified. There are things God cannot do, St Thomas Aquinas held. He cannot fail or forget. He cannot commit sins or make himself not exist, nor can he make a triangle not have three sides. Why not? Because such actions would be logically self-contradictory. It may at first look as if that God’s omnipotence was questioned but it is not. The idea of a four-sided triangle is logically incoherent. Such an object could not possibly exist. Hence there is nothing there for God to do and his omnipotence is logically safe. QED. (Well, sort of. It is complicated...)

What about changing the past? Assuming – God forbid – that little Maddie had been killed. Could God make it so that her death never took place? That she may still be alive? Could he make what once happened unhappen? So that she may one day be reunited with her distraught parents?

Aquinas denied that possibility. He taught that the idea of undoing the past is senseless. Incoherent. Because it entails a logical contradiction, like the case of triangle not having three sides. As even God cannot do the logically impossible he cannot undo Maddie’s death, if it did actually take place. Hence no point in praying for that, alas.

A contrary theological view was advance by St Peter Damian, an Italian hermit and reformer. He once wrote a story about a soldier, a certain Deodatus, who had dishonoured himself in battle against the barbarians by committed a cowardly act. Filled with shame and remorse the soldier falls to his knees and prays with all his heart: ‘O Lord, make me go back in time, so that I can wipe out my cowardice!’ God hears Deodatus’ prayer and fulfils it. The soldier returns to the battlefield and, this time, acts bravely. In fact, he is killed fighting the barbarous Goths but he dies happy. Is praying for a past deed to be undone all right, then?

I imagine plump St Thomas in Heaven smiling seraphically, addressing his fellow saint: ‘A charming story, Peter Damian, but it is only that – a story. You might as well have narrated about a mad mathematician praying for two plus two not to make four. Absurd. Could God grant that? Surely not. God’s omnipotence does not extend to the logically impossible, you should know that...Similarly, he could not make poor Deodatus alter his past shame. I am sorry.’

Peter Damian’s turn to smirk: ‘Dear Thomas, you have triangles on your brain. You rationalist thinkers always take your examples from geometry or maths. Very convenient. Deodatus isn’t a triangle or a circle. He is a human being of flesh and blood, not a lifeless conceptual abstraction. He is part of God’s created nature. And Holy Scripture shows you plenty of cases of the Author of nature intervening in his creation. Didn’t Jesus bring Lazarus back from the dead? Did not Christ turn water into wine? Did he not walk on water? Foretell the future? Did not the Father make the Virgin Mary conceive the Saviour? Are you going to say it is logically impossible to know what has not yet happened? But these are miracles. Extraordinary events. By your lights, we should disbelieve them, because of being ‘logically impossible’. What a nonsense! See where your dialectics leads to? I advise you not to contradict the Bible. Or else...’ (A real threat, as St Peter Damian was no wishy-washy liberal: he wrote that those who denied divine omnipotence should be spat upon and branded.)

Aquinas could have replied that God foreknows future events through his knowledge of their causes here and now. Still, there would be a problem with genuinely free human actions, which are not meant to be ‘caused’. Anyway, what is at stake is really the status of the revered principle of non-contradiction: the philosophers’ top sacred cow. Peter Damian seems right when he argues that the Deity’s actions on the physical, created order are not the same kind as his making a round square, which clearly entails an absurdity in thought. He argued, for instance, that it is no logical self-contradiction to say that God could restore a virgin’s lost virginity. The Creator of all human flesh can repair, if he so wills, any damage done to the flesh. No matter how many evil men a virgin has been raped by, God can make it so that she is back to her intact condition. It is a miracle, what else?

A fine online paper by Toivo Holopainen delves further into this murky stuff but...back to poor little Maddie. Why pray for her? Because prayer expresses your concern for others. Because you can never know in what ways prayer may benefit those for whom you pray, even the dead. Because prayer is never wasted and because God always – I say always – hears your prayers and always answers them. He does – though not always in the ways you would necessarily expect.
Because God knows something you don’t know.

Last modified on Tuesday, 11 April 2017 13:23

Frank Gelli I am an Anglican priest and cultural critic and commentator. I have BA in Philosophy, MA in Christian Ethics, MA in Islamic Studies, PGCE in Religious Education and Oxford Certificate in Theology. I have been a journalist & drama critic in Italy and England.
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