In a conversation about how we reason to the idea of God as Creator, a student once asked me a great question that I thought others might also find worth thinking about. His question was this:
I have always been curious and bothered by the fact that whenever I ask where God came from I have been given the answer, “He was just always there,” and assume we have won the argument. But that answer doesn’t sit well with me. It seems like a copout. When atheists and scientists are confronted on what came before the ‘Big Bang,’ they’ll respond that it was just matter and energy. If we then ask, “Well then where did the matter and energy come from?” the scientists will respond, “Well they are just there.”
How can we say that the answer, “the matter and energy were always there,” isn’t a suitable answer if we say the same thing about our God? It just doesn’t make very much sense to me. Please offer any insight you might have on this subject. It has been bothering me for a long time.
I have to admit, this answer does sound like a copout unless you understand that there is a categorical difference between just saying something “has always been there” and giving a reasoned explanation for a First Cause of all things. These kinds of arguments can’t identify the Christian God (or any other god specifically), but they can show that there is a logical explanation for the existence of something that set the whole show in motion.
There are two ways to think about God’s pre-existence and the origin of universe. One is scientific; the other is philosophical.
The Scientific Way
Science is the study of cause and effect. We see things happen in the world and we investigate what kind of cause could be responsible for what we see. Those of us who see this universe as God’s creation should have no fear of science. Science is simply the way we discover and explore our Maker’s work. With that said, remember the answer to the question, “Did the universe have a beginning?” The answer to that question is, “Yes, it did.” The beginning of the universe is an effect we observe. So, what could be the cause of that effect?
Well, either “something” caused it, or “nothing” caused it.
To say that “nothing” caused everything to come into existence would be a real copout. It’s a meaningless, empty, non-answer to the most profound question anyone could ever ask.
Indeed, it only makes sense to say that “something” must have caused everything to be here and then go about trying to identify what kind of “something” it had to be. Since that beginning is defined as the instant emergence of all matter, energy, space, and time, it is perfectly logical to infer that whatever caused matter, energy, space, and time to pop into existence must be outside matter, energy, space, or time as we know it.
The cause of a thing can’t be part of the thing itself. So, the cause must be a timeless, spaceless, and immaterial “something.”
Notice that description of the “Cause” is perfectly consistent with the definition of God as an eternal (timeless), self-existent (causeless) spirit (non-material). Science cannot “prove” (or disprove) God. Science deals with our study of the natural world and God is not a part of the natural world. He is beyond the natural. He is supernatural. However, science does imply the reality of a supernatural cause for the world and that is exactly what it does in this case.
Atheistic/Naturalistic scientists have three ways to respond to this implication:
- They can claim that the “something” is just more of the same. In other words, they would have to argue that in this case — and in this case alone — in complete defiance of the very law of cause and effect that makes science possible, the universe caused itself to pop into existence. They will not accept self-causation in any other instance, but if it provides a way to deny even the possibility that God exists, they will take it. This sounds intellectually dishonest to me. Though the questioner referred to this as “the matter and energy … that were always just there,” I have never heard of this as an explanation. Instead, I have heard it referred to as a “quantum field” or a “gravity field.” But, no matter what they call the source, this explanation does nothing but push the question back another step. And we rightfully ask, “Where did the quantum field come from?” The result is what we call an infinite regress, which amounts to another non-answer to a very profound question.
- They can claim that the “something” is a yet undiscovered combination of matter, energy, space and time that has occurred outside the boundaries of our universe but somehow created an effect inside those boundaries. Because it is outside the boundaries of our universe, we cannot ever know what it is. It is undetectable to us and therefore nothing but a speculative explanation which has been made up, once again, to avoid the implication of a Supernatural God. This is exactly what the “Many Worlds Hypothesis” is all about.
- They can claim that “nothing” was the cause. This is exactly what Lawrence Krauss has done in his book, A Universe From Nothing, and it reveals just how desperate the atheistic view is to deny even the possibility of the existence of God. When you are willing to say that nothing caused everything to exist you have stepped beyond the realm of respectability and into the realm of intellectual dishonesty. This is especially true when, like Krauss, you go on to define “nothing” as a different way of understanding what is actually “something.” This is not an argument at all. It is simply proof that only highly educated, “smart” people could ever come up with something so silly.
In summary, those who deny the implication of a supernatural Creator are left with three naturalistic possibilities, only two of which actually offer an answer. One (number 2. above) appeals to an explanation that is, by definition, undetectable and unknowable. The other (number 1. above), results in an “infinite regress.” An infinite regress amounts to asking the question, “Well, what caused that?” an infinite number of times. But infinity is only a concept. There cannot be an actual infinite number of things or events. At some point the chain has to stop. At some point the explanation for all matter, energy, space, and time has to reach an end. That is a point we call “The Uncaused First Cause,” and it is perfectly consistent with the definition of God.
The scientific argument is not that God has always been there, it is that He, or some cause that really closely resembles Him, has to be the originator of all causes. Matter itself, or the laws of nature that govern it, can’t do that.
I think this is convincing — that something has to be the first cause of things and that the “something” cannot be a part of the stuff we are asking about. But this is a scientific argument and, because science cannot ever fully point us to God (it can only imply Him), it is not the best kind of argument to use.
The Philosophical Way
Philosophy, on the other hand, does provide us an argument that is irresistible. I am no philosopher but let me present the case as best I can:
When you and I talk about “motion,” we think about physical things like baseballs transitioning from one point in physical space to another point in physical space. But when philosophers talk of “motion,” they mean something very different. Motion to a philosopher is more like change. Things are constantly changing so the world we observe is constantly “in motion” in that sense. Objects move through space. Leaves change color, fall off, and reappear in the Spring. Bodies form, grow, get old, and then die and decay. Everything is always in motion.
This ongoing process means that things are always “actually” in some state but have the “potential” to move to another state. Think of an ice cube. It is an “actual” block of frozen water but it has the “potential” to become a puddle, then steam, then a vapor, then a cloud, then a rain drop, then a river, then a lake, then something in my glass. The chain of moving from actual things with potential, to other actual things, continues on forever into the future. All actual things contain the potential to change.
But if we go backward, the chain of “potentiality” must begin with something that is purely actual. All motion has to have started somewhere. Unless there was a first “Mover” there could never have been any motion at all. In philosophy this is what is known as an “entailment” — it’s something that has to be true. The first “mover” not only must be unmoved, it must be unmovable. It is what the philosophers call “pure actuality.”
“And this [pure actuality],” Thomas Aquinas said, “is what we call God.”*
Not A Copout
So, back to the original question. There are scientific and philosophical ways to approach the idea of a God who was always “just there.” Both are very convincing. One is an entailment. Neither is a copout. The real takeaway is that the idea of God does not have to be the wishful assertion of weak-minded people who just give a throw-away answer to end the conversation. God is not a filler we invoke to get out of explaining something we don’t understand. The reality is that the existence of everything requires an explanation .. and an eternal God is the best explanation we have.
* I owe this brief (and incomplete) explanation to my understanding of the case made by Edward Feser, in his book The Last Superstition. If you have an interest in philosophy by someone who is witty enough to make things interesting, it’s a great read … even if it hurts your brain sometimes. You can order it directly from Amazon.com here: