4 Reasons That God Exists
Arguments for the existence of God come in many different forms; some draw on history, some on science, some on personal experience, and some on philosophy. The primary focus of this site is the philosophical arguments — the ontological argument, the first cause argument, the argument from design, and the moral argument.
Each of these arguments, if successful, supports a certain conception of God: the ontological argument, for instance, is an argument for the existence of a perfect being; the first cause argument is an argument for the existence of an eternal Creator; the argument from design is an argument for the existence of Creator with a special interest in humanity; the moral argument is an argument for a moral authority.
Each of the arguments, if successful, then, so supports a specific religion to the extent that its conception of God matches that supported by the argument.
The first purported proof of the existence of God is the ontological argument. The ontological argument seeks to prove the existence of God from the laws of logic alone. It dates back to St Anselm, an eleventh century philosopher-theologian and archbishop of Canterbury, but was also used by the French philosopher René Descartes. It argues that once we mentally grasp the concept of God we can see that God’s non-existence is impossible. This argument, if it is successful, demonstrates the existence of a perfect being that could not possibly fail to exist.
The ontological argument is an argument for God’s existence based entirely on reason. According to this argument, there is no need to go out looking for physical evidence of God’s existence; we can work out that he exists just by thinking about it. Philosophers call such arguments a priori arguments.
There clearly are certain claims that we can tell are false without even having to look into them to find out. The claim to have made a four-sided triangle, and the claim to be over six feet tall but less than five, for example, are both claims that are obviously false. We know that triangles have three sides. We know that being over six feet tall means being over five feet tall too. No one that understands what the words in these claims mean would think that they might be true. There’s no need to spend time looking for four-sided triangles or tall short people in order to know that there aren’t any.
The ontological argument claims that the idea that God doesn’t exist is just as absurd as the idea that a four-sided triangle does. According to the ontological argument, we can tell that the claim that God doesn’t exist is false without having to look into it in any detail. Just as knowing what “triangle” means makes it obvious that a four-sided triangle is impossible, the argument suggests, knowing what “God” means makes it obvious that God’s non-existence is impossible. The claim that God does not exist is self-contradictory.
The Definition of “God” Includes Perfection
There are many things that something would have to be in order to be properly called “God”. For instance, it would have to be all-powerful, because a part of what “God” means is “all-powerful”. To call something that isn’t all-powerful God would be like calling a shape that doesn’t have three sides a triangle; to anyone who understands the words involved it just wouldn’t make sense. Another part of what “God” mean is “perfect”; something can’t properly be called God unless it is perfect. This is the key idea behind the ontological argument.
God is “That Than Which No Greater Can Be Conceived”
If something is perfect, then it couldn’t possibly be better than it is; there can’t be anything better than perfection. This means that if a thing is perfect then it is impossible to imagine it being better than it is; there is nothing better than it is to imagine.
If we think of God as being perfect—and perfection, remember, is part of the concept of God—then we must therefore think of God as a being that cannot be imagined to be better than he is. As St Anselm, the inventor of the ontological argument, put it, God is “that than which no greater can be conceived.”
It is therefore impossible to conceive either of there being anything greater than God or of it being possible to imagine God being better than he already is.
Atheists Are Therefore Confused
If we were to think of God as not existing, though, then we would be able to imagine him being better than he is; we would be able to imagine him existing, and a God that exists is clearly better than a God that doesn’t. To think of God as not existing, then, is to think of God as being imperfect, because a God that doesn’t exist could be better than he is.
The idea of an imperfect God, though, we have already said, is just as absurd as the idea of a four-sided triangle; “perfect” is part of what “God” means, just as “three-sided” is part of what “triangle” means. As the idea that God doesn’t exist implies his imperfection, therefore, the idea that God doesn’t exist is just as absurd, just as obviously false, as the idea that a four-sided triangle does. God’s non-existence is therefore impossible.
What the Ontological Argument Proves
Whether this argument is successful is controversial. There are a number of objections to the ontological argument, which many, though not all, accept as decisive. If the ontological argument is successful, then it must be the case that God, “God” meaning “perfect being”, exists.
This would establish a lot of what the monotheistic religions say about God to be true—if God is perfect then he is also omniscient, omnipotent, eternal, etc., just as the monotheistic religions say—but not all of it. It would show that there exists a God that is perfect in every way, but it would not demonstrate much about the relationship between that God and us.
The second purported proof of the existence of God is the first cause argument, also called “the cosmological argument”. The first cause argument seeks to prove the existence of God from the fact that the universe exists. The universe came into existence at a point in the distant past. Nothing can come into existence, though, unless there is something to bring it into existence; nothing comes from nothing. There must therefore be some being outside of the universe that caused the universe to exist. This argument, if it is successful, demonstrates the existence of a Creator that transcends time, that has neither beginning nor end.
The first cause argument (or “cosmological argument”) takes the existence of the universe to entail the existence of a being that created it. It does so based on the fact that the universe had a beginning. There must, the first cause argument says, be something that caused that beginning, a first cause of the universe.
The universe consists of a series of events stretched across time in a long causal chain. Each one of these events is the cause of the event that comes after it, and the effect of the event that comes before it. The world as it is came from the world as it was, which came from the world as it was before.
If we trace this series of events back in time, then what do we find? There seem, at first glance, to be two possibilities: either we eventually reach the first event in the series, the cause at the beginning of the universe that set everything going, or there is no first event in the series and the past stretches back into infinity.
The first cause argument tells us that the second of these is not possible, that the past cannot stretch back into infinity but rather must have a beginning. The argument then proceeds by suggesting that if the universe has a beginning then there must be something outside it that brought it into existence.
This being outside the universe, this Creator, the first cause argument tells us, is God.
It’s Impossible to Traverse an Infinite Series
If I told you that I had just counted down from infinity to zero, starting with “infinity minus zero” and carrying on until I reached “infinite minus infinity, i.e zero”, then you would know that this claim is false. Just as it is impossible to count up from zero to infinity, so it is impossible to count down from infinity to zero. If I had started counting down from infinity and kept going, then I would still be counting to this day; I would not have finished. My claim to have counted down from infinity to zero must be false. This is because it is impossible to traverse an infinite series.
The Past Therefore Cannot be Infinite
The idea that the universe has an infinite past is just as problematic as the idea that I have just counted down from infinity. If the universe had an infinite past, then time would have had to count down from infinity to reach time zero, the present, and so would not have reached it. The fact that we have reached the present therefore shows that the past is not infinite but finite. The universe has a beginning. This claim, of course, has been confirmed by modern science, who trace the universe back to a point of origin in the ‘big bang’.
The past cannot go back forever, then; the universe must have a beginning. The next question is whether something caused this beginning, or whether the universe just popped into existence out of nothing. We all know, though, that nothing that begins to exist does so without a cause; nothing comes from nothing. For something to come into existence there must be something else that already exists that can bring it into existence. The fact that the universe began to exist therefore implies that something brought it into existence, that the universe has a Creator.
The First Cause Must be Uncreated, Eternal
If this Creator were a being like the universe, a being that exists in time and so that came into existence, then it too would have to have been created by something. Nothing comes from nothing, not even God.
This tells us that the ultimate cause of the universe must never have come into existence; the ultimate Creator must be a being that exists outside of time, an eternal being with neither beginning nor end. (For a more detailed defence of this argument, see William Lane Craig’s The Existence of God and the Beginning of the Universe.)
What the First Cause Argument Proves
There are several objections to the first cause argument, but if it is successful then it establishes the existence of a Creator that transcends time. Combined with the ontological argument, this would give us proof that there is a perfect, necessary, and eternal Creator.
This would not quite be the same as proving all that Christianity and the other monotheistic religions teach about God, but it would be close. It would tell us that God exists, and what he is like, and that he created the universe. It would not, however, tell us why he created the universe or what we ought to do about it.
The third purported proof of the existence of God is the argument from design, also called “the teleological argument”. The argument from design seeks to prove the existence of God from the fact that the universe is ordered.
The universe could have been different from the way that it is in many ways. It could have had different laws of physics; it could have had a different arrangement of planets and stars; it could have begun with a more powerful or a weaker big bang.
The vast majority of these possible universes would not have allowed for the existence of life, so we are very fortunate indeed to have a universe that does. On an atheistic world-view, there is no way to explain this good fortune; the atheist must put this down to chance. On the view that God exists, though, we can explain why the universe is the way that it is; it is because God created the universe with beings like us in mind. This argument, if it is successful, strongly suggests the existence of a Creator that takes an interest in humanity.
The argument from design focuses on the fact that the universe is fit for human habitation. There are many ways that the universe might have been, the argument from design tells us—it might have had different laws of physics; it might have had a different arrangement of planets and stars; it might have begun with a bigger or a smaller big bang—and the vast majority of these universes would not have allowed for the existence of life. We are very fortunate indeed to have a universe that does.
The Universe Might Have Been Other Than It Is
Assume that modern science is correct in saying that the universe began with a big bang, that the universe came into existence with an explosion that sent pieces of matter flying in all directions at an enormous rate. The big bang might have been other than it was; it might have involved more or less matter, or have involved a larger or a smaller explosion, for example.
That the big bang occurred as it did was crucial for the development of life, because the rate of expansion of the universe, i.e. the speed at which the pieces of matter flew apart, had to fall within certain limits if life was to develop. Had the rate of expansion been too slow, then gravity would have pulled all of the matter back together again in a big crunch; there wouldn’t have been enough time for life to emerge.
Had the rate of expansion been too fast, then gravity wouldn’t have had a chance to pull any of the pieces of matter together, and planets, stars and even gases wouldn’t have been able to form; there wouldn’t have been anything for life to emerge on.
The rate of expansion following the big bang, of course, was just right to allow life to develop; if it weren’t then we wouldn’t be here now.
Had the Big Bang Been Different, the Universe Probably Wouldn’t Contain Life
That this was the case, though, was either an extraordinary fluke, or was intended by the big bang’s Creator. Had the rate of expansion been even fractionally slower — one part in a million million — then the big bang would have been followed by a big crunch before life could have developed. Had the rate of expansion been even fractionally faster — one part in a million — then stars and planets could not have formed. It is highly unlikely that a random big bang would be such as to allow life to develop, and therefore highly unlikely, according to the argument from design, that the big bang from which our universe was formed happened at random.
The fact that the universe is fit for life requires explanation, and an appeal to chance is no explanation at all. It is far more likely that the universe was initiated by a being that intended to create a universe that could support life. The fine-tuning of the universe for life can only be explained with reference to a Creator, as the result of intelligent design.
Other Examples of Fine-Tuning
The rate of the expansion of the universe following the big bang is just one instance of apparent design in the universe; other examples, like the strength of the weak force, the strength of the strong force, and isotropy.
Each example makes it less likely that the universe was created at random and more likely that it was designed by a Creator that takes an interest in humanity. Once all of this evidence is taken into account, the argument from design concludes, there can be no question as to whether the universe just happens to be fit for life or whether it was deliberately created that way; the universe clearly exhibits the marks of intelligent design.
What the Argument from Design Proves
As with the other arguments, there are a number of objections to the argument from design. If it is successful, however, then together with the ontological argument and the first cause argument it gives us proof that there is a perfect, necessary, and eternal Creator whose purpose in creating the universe was to bring about life. This would include most of the important elements of Christian theism; it would tell us that God exists, and what he is like, and that he created the universe with life in mind. It would not, however, tell us much about how we ought to respond.
The fourth purported proof of the existence of God is the moral argument. The moral argument seeks to prove the existence of God from the fact that there are moral laws.
Moral laws have the form of commands; they tell us what to do. Commands can’t exist without a commander though, so who is it that commands us to behave morally?
To answer this, we only need to look at the authoritative nature of morality. Commands are only as authoritative as is the one that commands them; a command of a ruler carries more authority than a command of a citizen. Moral commands, though, have ultimate authority; they are to be obeyed under all circumstances. Their authority transcends all human authority, and they must therefore have been commanded by a being whose authority transcends all human authority.
The existence of moral laws, the argument concludes, thus demonstrates the existence of a being that is greater than any of us and that rules over all creation.
The moral argument appeals to the existence of moral laws as evidence of God’s existence. According to this argument, there couldn’t be such a thing as morality without God; to use the words that Sartre attributed to Dostoyevsky, “If there is no God, then everything is permissible.” That there are moral laws, then, that not everything is permissible, proves that God exists.
Some facts are facts about the way that the world is. It is a fact that cats eat mice because there are lots of animals out there, cats, and lots of them eat mice. It is a fact that Paris is the capital of France because there exists a city called Paris that is the capital of France. For most facts, there are objects in the world that make them true.
Morality Consists of a Set of Commands
Moral facts aren’t like that. The fact that we ought to do something about the problem of famine isn’t a fact about the way that the world is, it’s a fact about the way that the world ought to be. There is nothing out there in the physical world that makes moral facts true.
This is because moral facts aren’t descriptive, they’re prescriptive; moral facts have the form of commands.
Commands Imply a Commander
There are some things that can’t exist unless something else exists along with them. There can’t be something that is being carried unless there is something else that is carrying it. There can’t be something that is popular unless there are lots of people that like it.
Commands are like this; commands can’t exist without something else existing that commanded them.
The moral argument seeks to exploit this fact; If moral facts are a kind a command, the moral argument asks, then who commanded morality? To answer this question, the moral argument suggests that we look at the importance of morality.
Morality is Ultimately Authoritative
Morality is of over-riding importance. If someone morally ought to do something, then this over-rules any other consideration that might come into play. It might be in my best interests not to give any money to charity, but morally I ought to, so all things considered I ought to. It might be in my best interests to pretend that I’m too busy to see my in-laws on Wednesday so that I can watch the game, but morally I ought not, so all things considered I ought not.
If someone has one reason to do one thing, but morally ought to do another thing, then all things considered they ought to do the other thing. Morality over-rules everything. Morality has ultimate authority.
Ultimately Authoritative Commands Imply an Ultimately Authoritative Commander
Commands, though, are only as authoritative as the person that commands them. If I were to command everyone to pay extra tax so that we could spend more money on the police force, then no one would have to do so. I just don’t have the authority to issue that command. If the government were to command everyone to pay extra tax so that we could spend more money on the police force, though, then that would be different, because it does have that authority.
As morality has more authority than any human person or institution, the moral argument suggests, morality can’t have been commanded by any human person or institution. As morality has ultimate authority, as morality over-rules everything, morality must have been commanded by someone who has authority over everything. The existence of morality thus points us to a being that is greater than any of us and that rules over all creation.
What the Moral Argument Proves
If the moral argument can be defended against the various objections that have been raised against it, then it proves the existence of an author of morality, of a being that has authority over and that actively rules over all creation. Together with the ontological argument, the first cause argument, and the argument from design, this would give us proof that there is a perfect, necessary, and eternal being that created the universe with life in mind and has the authority to tell us how we are to run it. The correct response to this would be to seek God’s will and to practice it.
Together, then, these arguments claim to prove the existence of a perfect, necessary, transcendent being that created the universe, has authority over it, and takes an interest in humanity. This, if it could be accomplished, would be more than enough to show that the Christian conception of God, and those conceptions of God related to it, are close to the truth.