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In a discussion with a friend about the meaning of God's omnipotence, Hebrews 6:18 came up. I have always understood this to mean that God literally cannot lie, but my friend understands it to mean that God will not lie.

Hebrews 6:18 (ESV)

so that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us.

No English translation quite seems to bear a "will not" interpretation, as far as I can tell. So, I am curious whether the Greek bears this. Would it be possible to render this alternately as something like "it is impossible that God would lie"?

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The sense of the verse would probably come out better if translated as it is not possible that God would be false. The root of the Greek verb translated as lie (ψεύδομαι - pseudomai) is the noun ψεῦδος (pseudos), which one could translate as lie, but is probably better rendered as falsehood.

The Concise Oxford English Dictionary (11th ed.) defines a "lie" as an intentionally false statement, but I think the emphasis here is not simply that God would never intentionally deceive, but rather that he would always remain steadfast in His promise. Hebrews 6:18 is referring to what was just said in the preceding verse. The two immutable things (KJV) were God's promise and His confirmation of the promise by an oath. Possibly Numbers 23:19 might have been called to mind:

God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should repent. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?

In this sense, I would probably side with your friend. It is not possible means that it won't ever happen: i.e. it's not possible that you will ever see it happen.

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  • user33515 - There are some significant objections to this conclusion: A.) Numbers 23:19 is explicitly stating that God is not a MAN, (who fails and lies). B.) There is no "subjunctive mood" in Hebrew as is being suggested here. C.) Hebrews 6:18 is explicitly using the Greek word "ἀδύνατον" - which is certainly about "capacity", "capability", "power" ... but not "will". D.) In order to validate this answer - Numbers 23:19 would have to be proven "subjunctive" - but I am not sure how that could be possible. – elika kohen Nov 30 '17 at 16:40
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According to the immediate context, as the above response made it lucid, Paul is making emphasis on the steadfastness of God's promises. However, there are clear allusions related to the expression that "it is impossible for God to lie" (ἀδύνατον ψεύσασθαι θεόν), for this expression relates to a radical and absolute distinction between God and humans, for only God is in absolute sense devoid of lies, whereas "every man is liar" (Psalm 116:11; or Romans 3:4 "Let God be true, and every man a liar"). It is not that man always says lies, which is false of course, but those statements mean that man can be truthful only through participation in the Truth, who/which is God; that is to say, man cannot be Truth-proper, that is property only of God.

Thus, Jesus saying "I am the Truth" (John 14:6) unequivocally claims His co-divinity with Father, which in the eyes of Jews not believing in His divinity made Him a blasphemer perfectly worthy to be killed (John 10:33).

So, there is an ontological difference between God and man, and as Descartes says, lie is a deficiency and weakness, and since God who is perfect (Matt 5:48) cannot possess any deficiency, therefore He is totally devoid of lie also, and since He cannot be deficient, the lie being necessarily an outcome of deficiency, neither can He lie.

So, you are right in overall estimation of God: He not only will not lie, but it is impossible for Him to lie, that is to say, ontologically impossible, as it is impossible for water not to be wet, or for a quadrangle to be round, and even more so, for no physical, created image adequately apples to the transcendency of God.

Also elsewhere Paul speaks of difference between Jesus and humans: "when we fall, He remains steadfast, for He cannot (οὐ δύναται) deny Himself" (2 Tim. 2:13), exactly the same ontological impossibility asserted of Jesus as is asserted of God in Hebrews 6:18.

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  • Interesting, thanks! Is it possible that 2 Timothy 2:13 could be rendered as "He will not deny Himself"? Or is the "cannot" pretty clear there? – Eric Nov 29 '17 at 23:45
  • Thanks for reading my post and estimating it! No, οὐ δύναται means unequivocally "cannot". – Levan Gigineishvili Nov 30 '17 at 0:43
  • Thanks! I have posted this related question if you care to elaborate: hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/q/30740/474 – Eric Nov 30 '17 at 13:00

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