The Existence of God

Sistine Chapel A depiction of the Pentecost from a  
6th century illuminated Book of Gospels.

A Question of Necessity

When investigating the question of God's existence, two of the most important questions we can ask are, “is there a supreme being, a God, who made and rules over everything," and "if there is, what does he have to do with us and us with him now?”

Many people make it difficult for themselves even to start on a journey towards an answer to those questions by having an image of God as, literally, an “old man in the sky”, a kind of super-Zeus. He supposedly occasionally interferes with things down here by performing a helpful miracle, but otherwise just watches (most of the time disapprovingly). They quite possibly even think this is what the Church teaches.

However, this misunderstanding fails to do justice to the Church’s genuine teaching. Indeed, this way of thinking reduces God to basically the same kind of thing as us, just a bigger or more powerful version.  This is the viewpoint expressed in the inscription on one Scottish tombstone:

Here lie I, Martin Elginbrodde;
Ha’e mercy o’ my soul, Lord God,
As I would do, were I Lord God
And ye were Martin Elginbrodde.”

But, of course, to treat ourselves and God as interchangeable is, quite apart from being possibly disrespectful, basically silly.  As we will see, God is completely different to anything or anyone else.  Another problem people have is that they see science and God as competitors. This, too, is a misconception. Let’s look at this first.

Many people believe science can explain everything and we don't need to think about God at all. They point to the progress of science and the fact that more and more things which seemed to be beyond natural explanation in the past are now understood as the result of natural causes.  (e.g., lightning or life.) Others claim that there must be “gaps” in nature which cannot be filled by science but only by divine miracles.  For example, they point to the big-bang at the very beginning of the universe and ask “Ah, but who caused that, if there was nothing before it in time.” So, who is right? Neither, as it turns out.

In the end, science can do absolutely nothing to help us answer the two most important questions of all about the cosmos: Why does anything exist, rather than nothing? And why this particular something, this universe? The reason for this is that science is about explaining change. It shows how we get from one state in nature to another using the concept of scientific laws, which describe the patterns or regularities that natural processes follow. In other words, science needs two things to start with to explain or predict anything: a set of natural laws and something for the laws actually to describe (since a mere set of equations don't have the power to do anything or make reality).

Now, obviously, this means science can never explain why there is a universe described by these laws.  Indeed, the ultimate goal of physics is to work out the one great equation that governs the whole material universe and includes within it all the other equations. (They already have a name for it--the T.O.E., or theory of everything).  Therefore, when science has gone as far as it can go, the biggest question remains untouched, that is the fundamental question of existence.  Either something exists because it has to, by its own very nature, or it doesn't have to exist, but does exist because of something else. Philosophers say the first kind of being is necessary, while the second type is contingent.

Contingent Nature

Clearly, none of the particular things that make up the universe have to exist. They are contingent, not necessary.  There is no reason that the clothes you are wearing must exist: as you would soon see if you took them off and set them on fire.  However, somebody could claim that while none of the individual bits and pieces that make up the universe are necessary, and so need “something else” to cause them, they cause each other. And so the universe as a whole is necessary.  But the universe as a whole does not explain itself, so to speak.  Why is it there at all?

To say a set of contingent beings can explain or cause each other is rather like this. Imagine you came across a circle of people holding hands — but all apparently hovering with their feet a metre above the ground! You ask them how they are managing this without strings or ropes? Imagine what your reaction would be if they answered, that each is being held up here because the person on his left is pulling him up.  Since they are in a circle, that means all can all be pulled up.  This is absurd.  Therefore we need to go outside the contingent universe to explain its existence. Yet, if we just go to another contingent being such as a previous universe or a cosmic nursery of universes (a super-universe which develops into ours and many others) we make no progress: we just extend the extent of contingency, of nature. We need to get back to a necessary being to account for all these contingent beings.

A Necessary Being

How could a being be necessary, though?  It is relatively easy to see that an apple, a brick, the Moon, or even this specific universe as a whole have nothing about them that makes their non-existence inconceivable or impossible. It’s harder to work out what could make a being necessary. We can start by going beyond particular things like those just named to what philosophers call universals; concepts like truth, love, or even the idea of a sphere. But these are all just that, concepts, ideas. While they seem independent of the particular characteristics of particular material universes, how they would actually exist outside a mind or cause anything on their own is the key question. So we must leave them to one side for the moment, since they are not the solution to our problem, even if they are in some sense necessary.

A clue to the solution to our problem is a property all contingent beings have in common: their existence that they are) is separate from their essence (what they are). The difference between the conception of an apple (that is, the set of qualities or properties of the apple, not the mental act) and a real apple is in the existence, not the essence, so existence and essence must be different: and thus the imagined apple does not have existence, while the real one does. There is no quality or property an apple in itself has that makes it impossible for it to cease to exist or accounts for its existence in the first place. In other words, apples can either exist or not exist. They are not necessary. That means we require, for a necessary being, one where the essence and existence are inseparable, identical. We require a being whose very essence is to exist. A philosopher’s name for such a being would be Existence Itself. When I said we require it, remember that we are forced to find a real necessary being to explain all the undeniably real contingent (unnecessary) ones.

This takes us a long way toward an explanation for the existence of the universe.  The only trouble is, it raises as many questions as it answers. What else can we know about this mysterious Existence Itself? Does it not have any other characteristics? And how does this explain why we have this particular universe, and not some other type?  Fortunately, it turns out that a lot can be derived from this rather bare definition and the fact that the necessary being caused all other beings. Since this being is not limited by particular characteristics, it isn’t this thing instead of that thing, it is unlimited. Anything which hints at the  inferiority of limits or particularity is out. Also, we know this being had to have caused everything else, so all the positive qualities exhibited in Creation must be represented in superior form in the Creator.

So it cannot be any kind of object with a specific shape or size or temperature or composition; nor can it be in any way “dead,” ignorant, unable to choose, powerless or evil. This means we are dealing with a non-material (spiritual) living being who is perfectly good, all-knowing, all-powerful and able to do whatever it wants. Hence, he could freely choose to create or not to create, and what kind of Creation to bring into existence. Thus the reason we have the universe we do can best be expressed by the statement “it just took the Creator’s fancy to do it that way."  He doesn’t need a reason.

By now you should recognise the common name for this being: God.

From Philosophy to the Faith

It should be noted that God is not just another good “thing,” he is goodness itself. Otherwise he would be limited to a particular manifestation of goodness; he would be good in “this way,” and therefore not in “that way.”  Indeed, other theological descriptions for God are “the (absolute) good” and “the (absolute) truth.” In summary, God is Goodness Itself, Existence Itself, and the Cause of every thing.

Does any of this have anything to do with Christianity? The answer is, yes.  In the Old Testament we have the God revealing his name as “I Am”. Not “I am this” or “I am that”, but just “I Am” (which translates as Yahweh in Hebrew, or Jehovah in Latinised Hebrew). He simply is. This is all the more compelling because the culture that recorded this was at that time one of the least philosophical in history: Ancient Israel. In the New Testament Jesus Christ reaffirms this link between the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and the First Cause in telling us, "before Abraham was, I AM." 

And with that, we can move on to the next important issue for the Christian Faith--that is, Jesus is Lord.