The Rejection of Pascal's Wager
Get the Book!

The God of Systematic Theology

Systematic theologians claim to be able to discover the attributes of the divine being. The National Catholic Almanac (1968) gives a total of 22 attributes of God; God is

almighty, eternal, holy, immortal, immense, immutable, incomprehensible, ineffable, infinite, invisible, just, loving, merciful, most high, most wise, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, patient, perfect, provident, supreme, true. [1]

It is important for the reader to note that two of the above attributes, namely incomprehensible (cannot be understood) and ineffable (cannot be described), seems to contradict all the other attributes; for how could the attributes of God be known if he can neither be understood nor described? [2]

The standard theological response is that God's true nature can never be fully comprehended by mortal and finite beings, but that this list of attributes helps us to understand, in an imperfect and indirect way, God's nature. Christian thinkers, starting with the medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), had always assert that there are two ways in describing God: the first, called negative theology, consists in describing what God is not; and the second, called affirmative theology, involves describing, through analogical reasoning, what God is. [3]

Now it is obvious that many of the attributes listed above are of a negative character; they say what God is not. Thus immutable means that God does not change, infinite means that God has no limits, invisible means God cannot be seen and so on.

But negative theology by itself cannot tell us anything about God; for how can we know something purely by knowing what it is not? [4] How do we separate God from nothingness? God is immutable, so is nothingness; God is invisible, so is nothingness; God is infinite, so is nothingness and so on. Obviously no Christian would like to equate his God with nothingness.

Clearly, the positive attributes of any being must be known before we can start describing its negative ones. Thus, to make any sense of the divine being, the theologian has to depend on affirmative statements about God's nature. But, as the theologian admits that direct knowledge of God's nature is not possible, he has to proceed by analogical reasoning; through this it is claimed that God is just, loving, merciful, and wise. But, as we shall show in the next section, the Bible shows God sometimes to be unjust, cruel, vindictive and sometimes even forgetful.

This is where trouble starts to brew; as the Christian then say that the analogy only shows that God "possesses the positive attributes in a mode proportionate to his nature." [5] All this tells us is that when we talk of God, his justice is not the same as human justice, his mercy is not the same as human mercy, his love is not the same as human love and his wisdom is not the same as human wisdom. If the words are not the same as what we understand them in the usual contexts, what do they mean? The Christian theologian sometimes try to get out of this difficulty by asserting that we use analogical descriptions toward animals as well; for instance, we describe a dog as being faithful to its master, knowing full well that the word could not possibly mean exactly the same thing as when we apply it to humans.

This reasoning, however, is flawed. In the first place the claim that the reasoning is purely analogical is dubious; for the dog does exhibit behavior that we would describe as faithful such as waiting at the gate for his master to come home from work (for instance); a dog that attacks its own master for no reason would not be called faithful. In other words, the word faithful (or intelligence or loyalty or what-have-you) when applied to the dog still retains a large portion of its meaning as applied to humans. This is unlike the case of Christian calling his God good, just or merciful. For his God has been reported in the Bible as ordering Moses to commit senseless slaughter of innocents, for murdering 42 children for insulting the prophet Elisha and for sending spirits to make people tell lies; to name but a few examples. Yet the Christian theologian persists in calling his God good, just and merciful. Where then, is the analogy?

Furthermore the dog, at least, is known to man by direct knowledge of its attributes. The dog also share many similarities with human beings; both species being grouped under the class of mammals. Thus when we talk analogically of the dog, we already have direct non-analogical knowledge of it. Without that as a basis, talking analogically would make no sense. Thus should someone say a gobbledegook is wise but its wisdom is not human wisdom but "is a mode proportionate to his nature"; we would still know nothing about this hypothetical gobbledegook. [6] In short, the doctrine of analogy does not bring the believer any nearer to defining his God.

The next set of attributes are those that gives the Christian God unlimited supernatural characteristics such as eternity, immutability (unchangeableness), omniscience (unlimited knowledge) and omnipotence (unlimited power). It is this kind of attributes that most lay Christians understand, or think they understand, when they talk of God. [7] These attributes stem from utilizing a combination of negative and positive theologies; for instance omnipotence mean God has power (analogically) that is without limits (negative theology). [8]

The layman should not be surprised that the Christian God is claimed to be unlimited in all things. In the early days of Christianity, it had to compete with other religions, other gods. Any attempt at limiting the attributes of the deity will definitely meet with derision from the religious competitors; the "our God is greater than your God" syndrome. This need to give unlimited attributes to God, while it makes good competitive sense, does lead to quite a few contradictory notions. This we will now demonstrate.

The main problem with these unlimited attributes is that they contradict one another. For instance, take omniscience and omnipotence. If the omniscient God knows the future with absolute certainty, how can he be omnipotent? For knowing the future, he can no longer change it. If God cannot change the future, then he cannot be omnipotent. But if God can change the future, how can he be omniscient? Does God have free will? For knowing what he will do in the future with certainty, he can no longer be said to have free will. He does not make any decisions for all his future actions are already known to him. The omniscient God is an unthinking, non-volitional being. [9]

In fact the infinite attributes makes some of the other attributes given to him by theologians impossible. Take the simple attribute, that God is all wise or intelligent. In other words, when theologians claim that God is intelligent, is this assertion compatible with the attributes that he supposedly has? Let us first define the term "intelligent". When we say today that someone is intelligent, what do we mean by that assertion? We mean that he or she is perceptive and is able to reason (i.e. with logic and mathematics). And very often we would include memory in a person's intelligence; since that would help him memorize axioms, logical and mathematical rules. When we say that God is intelligent we must mean, in one way or another, that he has perceptive, reasoning and memorizing capabilities.

Perception is one of the basic foundation of intelligence; but can God perceive? The act of perceiving means that one is in the process of obtaining a new idea. But the theologians say that God is omniscient; i.e. he has unlimited knowledge. Now you cannot add to infinite knowledge, otherwise it would not be called infinite. If God perceives he is in the process of obtaining a new idea, but that would mean that his state before the actual perception is not omniscient; for he knew less before he was perceiving then after it. He would thus be less than perfect, and not God. So God cannot have perception, if his attributes are what the theologians say they are. Yet without perception, where is intelligence?

The basic process of intelligence is reasoning. Reasoning involve the use of logical or mathematical rules to derive the conclusion that we do not know before. Yet God is suppose to be omniscient. All solutions to all puzzles are already known to him. His position is akin to a multiplication table with all the answers printed next to the actual multiplication. Similarly, a computer that simply stores solutions to puzzles without having any program for decision making would not in the least be considered intelligent. Yet this is how God is, being omniscient all the answers are already "printed out" next to the puzzles. God cannot reason, but without reason where is intelligence?

Memory is an important asset for any intelligent being. Yet to remember something is to distinguish it from something permanently or temporarily forgotten. This involves a change in mental condition. But God, being immutable, cannot change (Can God forget?) and thus is without memory. Yet without memory, where is intelligence? [10]

Now if the believer objects to all this by saying that God's infinite intelligence is not to be compared with man's finite one; then he must explain just what he mean by the word "intelligent" when applied to God? Our understanding of words come from their everyday use. If the same word is used to mean something different, its meaning must be made clear. The believer is not justified in acquiring all the normal positive connotations of the word "intelligent" for his God when he refuses to accept the normal meaning or usual implications of the term.

Thus the characteristics of God as supplied by Christian theologians are nothing more than meaningless and contradictory concepts wrapped in theological garb.

Back to the top


1.quoted in Smith, Atheism: p47
2.Smith, Atheism: p48
3.Ibid: p51
4.Ibid: p52
5.Ibid: p57
6.Ibid: p55-60
7.Hinnels, Dictionary of Religions: p133-134
Jones, A History of Western Philosophy:II The Medieval Mind: p225
8.Smith, Atheism: p69
9.Ibid: p74-75
10.Bradlaugh, Humanity's Gain From Unbelief:37-40

Back to the top

[Home] [The Central Thesis] [Christianity] [The Bible] [Jesus] [Paul] [God] [History] [Pascal's Wager] [Bibliography] [Links]
© Paul N. Tobin 2000

For comments and queries, e-mail Paul Tobin
Hosted by