Recently, I got this question:
Glenn, I'm a christian college student with an atheist father.
He is a good man, and a tough opponent in an argument. recently,
he posed this question:
can God be infinite while man coexists as finite?
it is obvious to me that God is not everything. the word 'infinite'
seems to suggest this. God also could not be infinite such as
a numberline is infinite since the infinite number line is the
sum of every number, or if you took a number out the line is no
longer infinite. it can't be that God is the sum of everything
that exists. at the same time, it can't be that God is actually
everything because that would contradict the Christian ethic."
please help if you can
1. The first thing to realize is that 'infinite' is an adjective, which looks like it is 'quantitative'. When we use it in a form like "Joe has infinite X" (e.g., patience, money, height), we imply a measurement (e.g "amount of time before he blows his temper", "dollars/pounds/whatever", "feet/meters"). So, when we use the sentence "God is infinite", we STILL have to ask "God has infinite WHAT" or "God is infinite in WHAT ASPECT". Some things—when "infinite" is applied to them—do not preclude other things having that aspect at all.
For example, if Joe has
"infinite patience", that doesn't preclude ME from being patient with
my friends/family/others on alternate Thursdays...(smile). Or if Joe has
"infinite height", it wouldn't preclude me from being 5'10" (it
might, of course, if I had to live standing
on top of Joe—and this gets us closer to what you dad is getting at,
2. So, certain aspects of
a thing/person COULD theoretically be infinite WITHOUT precluding others from
having the same aspect. In fact, it might be that MOST aspects of things and
persons would fall into this case: personal characteristics (e.g., patience,
wisdom, gentleness, surliness, intelligence, honestly), and at least some SOME
physical characteristics (e.g., height [if we didn't live on top of one
another], width [if we DID live on top of one another], quietness).
3. With God, we see the
same pattern. God could have "infinite patience" or "infinite
wisdom" (although we would need to be careful how we defined these
terms—the biblical data doen't use notions of infinity very often when
referring to God, with the THREE exceptions we will note next.) So, there are
certainly aspects of God that could be 'infinite' without precluding us from
having them as well.
4. The three
cases—biblically--where "infinite" might be applied to God are (a)
His "infinite" duration in time ; (b) His "infinite"
visibility into our lives; and (c) His "infinite" ability to
accomplish His goals.
(a) His infinite duration in time is simply His eternity (as generally conceived). This clearly does not preclude us. The fact that He exists eternally ("infinitely") would not preclude others from existing either temporarily or even eternally. You could certainly have many, many 'infinities' walking around, because there is nothing in this concept that would require otherwise.
(b) His infinite visibility into our lives: This is often called 'omnipresence' , but it is often mis-conceived as being God's "extension" of His being/essence/existence throughout all of space (e.g., God is "physically" somehow "in" the molecules of the tree, inside the cheese, inside hydrogen nuclei). Biblical omnipresence is more the doctrine of the "inescapability" of God—we are ALWAYS in His "presence", much as every object in this room is 'present' to me. My computer monitor is present to me, although I am not extended in space all the way from my chair to it (even though I wear a long face frequently nowadays, it's not long enough to reach the monitor from where I sit—wan smile). Also associated with omnipresence is His ability to act at any point in the universe. I can reach over and cut the monitor off (further obscuring this response...). Analogously, God can act-at-a-distance (without having to move some physical mass of His, of course). This doesn't preclude other objects having existence or visibility, though. So this infinity wouldn't preclude other existences.
(c) His infinite ability to accomplish His goals (i.e., "is anything too hard for the Lord"). This is simply a matter of personal wisdom and ability, and wouldn't preclude others from having similar (or reduced) abilities—indeed we are called on to use our abilities to help others. There WOULD BE, perhaps, one impingement of this infinibility (hey, how's that for a new word—I like it!) upon us—we might not be able to 'out-fight' God. We might not be able to thwart Him, in cases where He was actually exercising His full ability toward His goals. (We could, of course, conceivably thwart His intent/desire in situations where He was NOT exercising His 'power prerogative'...as in when I sin...) But this would not preclude others from existing at all.
5. What this means is that the aspect or attribute itself—even in a finite situation—must need to be "preclusive" to begin with, for this to stick. For example, "Joe uses an infinite amount of air with every breath" precludes any other breathing creatures, because 'air' is a consumed/scarce/non-sharable resource. In the case of "presence", this is clearly NOT the case. When my son comes into my work-room here to visit, the monitor is present to us both. "Presence"--in the sense of visibility—IS 'sharable'. Another example might be "Joe is infinitely quiet"--quietness actually consumes no non-sharable resources, and so other agents would be free to "be quiet" as well...
So it is with God's
'infinite' presence...the very face-to-face and heart-to-heart relationship He
invites us to REQUIRES two 'presences' there!
6. The thing your dad
seems to be thinking about is physical mass.
If God had physical mass, and IT was extended through space infinitely, then he
would be perfectly correct. But the biblical position is that God is spirit
(not matter), and it never really talks about spirits as having 'mass' or
'physical extension. Spirits do have location (at least created spirits, who
can move from place to place), but there is a definite possibility
(theologically) that spirits can occupy the same 'locus' without getting into
problems with the impenetrability of matter. [The phenomenon of demonic
possession in the NT, for example, in which multiple spirits inhabited someone,
might suggest this, although these passages are difficult to squeeze enough
ontological data out of for a good comfort level.] But in any event, these
spirits do not 'push something else out' of us (even in the case of the Holy
Spirit in the NT)--spirits don't have physically mass (although they can
somehow generate energy and/or forces). So, your dad would be correct if the biblical position said that God was
infinitely physically massive, but since it
never teaches this, and actually teaches otherwise, the argument
simply doesn't actually apply to
the Christian position.
7. Normally, when the Christian tradition uses the sentence "God is infinite", it normally means (without a ton of precision, of course) that:
a. God is without external constraint or limitation in His action/life (e.g., the three points above in #4); He might limit the use of aspects of His ability--as all volitional beings do (and should do more often!), but these "limitations" are generated from within God and not involuntarily imposed upon Him by external realities;
b. God is "ultimate"--that His "type of existence" is not the same as ours, that His existence and freedom is non-derivative, that He is 'further back' ontologically/metaphysically than we are. We, as creatures, have a type of reality, but HIS reality is "MORE REAL" than ours. Ours is sorta like a "less dense" reality, or "lower resolution" reality.
8. [Strictly, speaking,
you could also develop a response to the number line illustration, based on
'levels of infinity', because, for example, the number line does 'contain' any
number of infinities-within-infinities [e.g., the infinite set of integers is a
subset ("contained in": sloppy speech, of course, but at least it
illustrates the principle) of the infinite set of real numbers] and/or you can
map all of the universe into a finite sphere (using transforms), etc., but this
would take you into Cantorian-type mathematics which is unnecessary in this case, given the fact
that the problem was with the 'physical mass' misunderstanding to start with.]
9. Dad's are supposed to
make you think...(smile)
So, the issue boils down to:
In our case:
I hope this helps, friend, and don't forget to thank your dad for (a)
being good; and (b) raising the question—since you yourself probably grew from
thinking about/through it...