Section 1: God
Digging Deeper Topic 1: Does God Really Exist?
What Kind of evidence should we expect?
We’ve spent a lot of time talking about what God is like. But many people claim there is no God. In light of those skeptics, it’s worth asking whether there’s any evidence that God does, in fact, exist. Now, when we look at the evidence for God’s existence, it’s important to recognize we’re never going to have access to the kind of direct evidence we might like. If God exists, he is not part of the natural world. As a result, we can’t see or touch him. So proving his existence isn’t like proving the existence of your girlfriend, for example. If your friends question whether she’s real or imaginary you can introduce them to her, and they can see her for themselves.
We can’t do that with God. But that doesn’t mean we can’t make a case for his existence. It simply means we won’t be able to rely on direct observation. If we’re going to make our case, we’ll have to infer God’s existence from other facts. And there’s nothing wrong with that. The truth is, we rely on inferences all the time.
If you own a dog and you find a shoe ripped to shreds, you’ll likely conclude your dog got a hold of it, even if you didn’t actually see the dog eat the shoe. If you come home from work and discover the last piece of pie—the one you’ve been thinking about all day—is gone, you’ll likely conclude your husband selfishly ate it, even if you didn’t actually see him eat it (I mean, come on, he’s got chocolate on his face). In both cases, you’re making an inference. Even though you didn’t directly observe what happened, you’re reaching a conclusion based on the best explanation of the facts you have.
Scientists make inferences as well. Take the existence of electrons or quarks. We’re unable to directly observe either of them. However, scientists accept that both exist because, even though they can’t be seen, as Stephen Layman explains, “by postulating or hypothesizing that such entities exist, physicists can explain many things that can be seen or observed…even though there is no direct empirical evidence for quarks and electrons…put simply, it is reasonable to believe that they exist because, if we assume they do, we get far and away the best explanation of a wide range of physical phenomena.”[i]
In essence, that’s the nature of the case for God’s existence. Although we can’t see God, his existence is required in order to explain a particular phenomenon we can see—the existence of the universe around us. We’ll take a look at why that’s true in the next section.
The search for a first cause
Why We Need a First Cause
So why would anyone think God’s existence is required to explain the existence of the universe? To answer that, we have to take a look at the chain of events that brought us to this point in time. As we trace the chain of causes and effects backwards, we need to arrive at a starting point, a first cause of the universe. Why?
The problem with an infinite series of causes and effects
Take anything you can think of that exists right now. Whatever you’re thinking of had a prior cause for its existence. What’s more, the thing that caused the thing you’re thinking of was caused by something else as well. Take me for example. I exist. But I didn’t bring myself into existence. I was brought into existence through the action of my parents. My parents, similarly, were brought into existence by my grandparents, who were brought into existence by my great-grandparents. The question is: how far back does this chain extend? If the chain into the past is infinitely long, no matter how far back you go, you’ll never reach the beginning. But if you can never get to the beginning, how did the whole chain get started?
An infinitely long fuse
Imagine you’re standing on the site of a building that’s going to be demolished. You see the dynamite they’re going use to blow it up, and decide to follow the fuse. If the fuse is infinitely long, you can follow it forever, and still never reach the beginning. But, if you can’t reach the beginning, how could there be an explosion? If there were an infinite distance between the dynamite and the other end of the fuse, even if the fuse were lit, the spark would never reach the dynamite. If the spark never reaches the dynamite, the dynamite will never explode.
The flip side of that is if you’re standing on the site of an already demolished building, you know the fuse that ignited the explosion couldn’t have been infinitely long. The fuse must have had a starting point a finite distance from the building.
It’s similar with the existence of the universe. We know the universe exists. But that means the causal chain of events that brought us to this particular point in time can’t be infinitely long. There must have been a starting point – a first cause of the universe.
The First Cause Looks a Lot like God
That’s significant because it turns out this first cause has to be a unique thing. If it’s the first cause, by definition, it can’t have a prior cause—it simply exists by virtue of its own nature. And that makes it very different from you and me. We might not like to think about it, but the reality is we could pop out of existence at any time. We didn’t have the ability to bring ourselves into existence by a sheer act of will, and we don’t have the ability to guarantee our continued existence. In other words, we are not self-existent. Our continued existence is dependent upon factors outside ourselves. But that cannot be true of the first cause we’re looking for. As we said, it exists by virtue of its own nature. It didn’t need a prior cause to bring it into existence, and by the same token, it is not dependent upon anyone or anything else for its continued existence. It will never cease to exist because the power of self-existence is a part of it very essence or being.
That means, whatever else it is, the first cause of the universe must be eternal – it has no beginning and no end. It didn’t have a beginning because it didn’t have a prior cause, and it will never come to an end because the power of self-existence is woven into the very fabric of its being. Now, a first cause of the universe with no beginning and no end sounds a lot like God.
By itself though, that doesn’t necessarily prove God’s existence—not the Christian God anyway—because Christians believe God is more than an eternal cause. So, in order to prove the existence of the Christian God, admittedly more evidence is required. But one piece of the puzzle seems to be in place.
The Problem of a Beginning
The Problem of the Big Bang
In the previous section, we explained why the universe requires an eternal first cause as the source of its existence. The need for a first cause is a philosophical argument for God’s existence. What does science say about the origin of the universe, though? That’s an important question because many believe the scientific evidence eliminates the need to appeal to God as a way of explaining the existence of the universe. As we’ll see, however, that’s not the case. In fact, God’s existence is arguably the best explanation of the scientific evidence.
So how does science explain the origin of the universe? Scientists work backwards from our current observations and postulate what the original condition of the universe must have been like to account for what we see currently. And when we look at the universe today, we notice something interesting. The evidence we have suggests the universe is expanding. Initially, we might think this means the galaxies are simply moving farther out into preexisting space. But, in fact, space itself is expanding.
To help us get a picture of what that looks like, Clegg uses the image of sticking sequins onto a sheet of rubber. If you pulled the rubber in every direction, the distance between the sequins will expand, not because the sequins themselves are moving, but because the rubber itself is expanding. Essentially, that’s what’s happening to the universe. As space itself expands, the distance between galaxies increases.[ii]
The fact that space itself is expanding has significant implications. As you reverse the expansion process, the space between galaxies decreases. As you continue to go back in time, you eventually reach a point where the universe can’t be contracted any further. In other words, you eventually reach the beginning—the point in time and space where a “big bang” of sorts set everything in motion.
Now, this is a controversial issue for many Christians. The big bang theory suggests the universe was set in motion billions of years ago. As a result, many believers reject the theory in its entirety on the basis of the biblical accounts in Genesis, which they argue show God created the universe much more recently – just 6,000-10,000 years ago. Other Christians believe Genesis can be interpreted to allow for a much older universe. As a result, they are much more open to the big bang theory. Settling the debate goes beyond the scope of our discussion. So, for the moment, for the sake of argument, let’s just assume the universe started in the big bang. Does this rule out God?
Not really. We’re still left with the question: who or what initiated the “big bang?” Remember, we can’t have an infinitely long fuse. So we’re looking for something eternal (i.e. something that exists by virtue of its own nature without a prior cause). Could something eternal but completely natural have set the universe moving?
The Problem of Change
Probably not. You see, if there were an eternal natural “something” that caused the big bang, the properties that make up that “something” would have to be eternal as well. And that’s a problem.[iii]
Philosopher William Lane Craig uses an illustration to highlight why. Water freezes at 0° centigrade. That means, “If the temperature were below 0° from eternity past, then any water that was around would be frozen from eternity. It would be impossible for water to begin to freeze just a finite time ago.”[iv]
In the case of the expansion universe, if the expansion were caused by something that was both eternal and natural, you would expect the expansion to have been eternal as well because the natural properties required to produce the expansion would have eternally been in place. You can’t have the cause (natural properties sufficient to produce the expansion of the universe) without the effect (the actual expansion of the universe). An eternal but natural cause of the universe, therefore, can’t explain why the expansion had a beginning. “If the cause is timelessly present, then the effect should be timelessly present as well”.[v] The existence of a beginning, therefore, presents a major problem for any naturalistic explanation of the universe.
The Need for a Supernatural First Cause
The universe’s existence seems to beg for an explanation. As we saw earlier, when we look at the causal chain of events that brought the universe to this particular point in time, it appears we need an eternal first cause for the universe. Otherwise, it’s difficult to see how there could be a universe for us to discuss. But as we’ve just seen, no eternal natural cause seems to do the trick. The universe’s existence, therefore, points to not only an eternal cause, but a supernatural cause as well.
Signs of choice
In the previous section, we saw it’s very difficult to explain the existence of the universe in purely natural terms. The implication, therefore, is there must be a supernatural cause lying behind the universe. By itself, though, that’s a long way from the God of Christianity. The Christian faith claims God is more than a first cause that jump-started the universe. The Christian God is a personal God. So the question naturally arises whether there’s any reason to believe the supernatural cause was also a personal cause. There are at least two lines of evidence that suggest there is.
The Problem of Change Revisited
To understand the first line of evidence for a personal cause, we need to go back to a prior discussion. We noted earlier that in order to explain the universe’s existence, we need an eternal cause. An eternal natural cause, however, doesn’t seem to work because the universe is expanding. If the universe had an eternal natural cause, we would expect the expansion to be eternal. But, the expansion had a beginning. As we saw, that seems to imply the universe had a supernatural rather than a natural cause.
The Probability of Personal Choice
We’ve already covered that. So why bring it up again? In the previous discussion, we saw why a natural cause can’t explain the existence of the universe. We raise the issue again to see why a personal cause can explain the existence of the universe.
The natural explanation fails because it’s a mechanical process, and no eternal mechanical process can explain why the universe began to exist at a specific point. But a personal choice can explain what a mechanical process can’t. As Craig says, “The only way for the cause to be timeless and the effect to begin in time is for the cause to be a personal agent who freely chooses to create an effect in time without any prior determining conditions.”[vi]
Why would a personal cause explain what a natural process cannot? Let’s use a variation of Craig’s frozen water illustration from the prior section. Think about the “yellow and blue make green” seals on sandwich bags. One side of the seal is yellow and the other side is blue. When you snap them together, the seal turns green. Now imagine you have an eternal sandwich bag with seals that have been eternally snapped together. Presumably, even though one side of the seal is yellow and the other side is blue, you’d nonetheless have an eternally green seal because the yellow and blue colors would have been eternally mixed together. As a result, there would never be a point where the seal turned green. It just always would have been green. Why? Because the properties of the bag are such that the seal will necessarily be green when they’re snapped together. If the yellow and blue were eternally mixed, you’d eternally have a green seal. As we said earlier, you can’t have the cause (the colors yellow and blue being mixed together) without the effect (the seal appearing green).
So what would we conclude if we knew the seal turned green? We cannot explain the seal turning green if the seal had been eternally snapped together. But the seal turning green makes perfect sense if we imagine a person deciding to snap the seal together at a given point. Similarly if we go back to Craig’s illustration in the previous section, we may not be able to explain how water could begin to freeze if the temperature had always been below 0 degrees centigrade. But we can easily explain it if a person decided to turn the temperature down to 0 degrees centigrade.[vii]
When it comes to the origin of the universe, we may not be able to explain how the expansion of the universe could start at a particular point if there were an eternal natural cause, but we can easily explain it if God decided to “flip the switch” so to speak and start the expansion.
The fact that our universe had a beginning, therefore, points to a choice made by a personal agent.
signs of intelligence
The previous section examined one line of evidence pointing to a personal cause lying behind the universe. We suggested the fact that the universe had a beginning points to a personal choice by God to bring the universe into existence. Perhaps some will think that argument was too speculative. I used a sandwich bag in one of my illustrations after all, and it’s hard to take any argument seriously if it relies on a sandwich bag illustration, right? But that’s not the only argument in support of a personal cause. A personal cause also fits well with the other facts we know about the universe, especially the order we see.
An Orderly Universe
Science tells us the universe operates according to various principles or laws. How do we explain that? Where do these laws come from? From a theistic point of view, of course, the answer is God. But why would anyone think the order in the universe points to God? In large part, it’s because experience teaches us order is typically the result of an intelligent mind.
Suppose a husband and wife buy a new house. With the help of their friends, they manage to get all their stuff moved in. But everything is still in boxes. Even though there’s still a lot of work left to do, the husband decides to go out with his buddies. When he gets home, he finds the house in perfect order. The dishes are in the kitchen cabinets, the clothes are neatly put away, the shower curtain is hung, the toothbrushes are in the toothbrush holder and the toothbrush holder is on the bathroom sink. Upon surveying the house, the husband exclaims, “What a lucky break! I must have left the window open and a strong wind blew everything into place.”
What would we say about the husband’s explanation? After wondering how his wife could put up with him, we’d reject his explanation out of hand. It would be obvious to anyone his wife must have put everything away. Why? Because there was an underlying order to everything. To be fair, the husband’s explanation is at least theoretically possible. It’s highly unlikely, however, because we recognize order is typically the product of an intelligent mind. The order we find in the universe, thus, suggests there is an intelligence behind it.
A Life-Sustaining Universe
That suggestion is reinforced by the fact that the order in the universe turns out to be life-sustaining order. That’s significant because there doesn’t appear to be anything about the laws of nature themselves that require a life-sustaining universe. Our universe could easily have had certain characteristics that would have made life impossible.
Here are just three examples:
- The big bang appears to have had essentially just the right amount of initial force to make the universe capable of supporting life. A stronger “explosion” would likely have prevented stars and galaxies from forming because, as Layman puts it, “the cosmic material would have been blown apart and isolated.” Yet, if the force of the “explosion” had been weaker, instead of expanding, the universe would have collapsed back on itself.
- Protons and neutrons are bound together by something called the strong nuclear force. On the one hand, if that force were 2% stronger, there would be no hydrogen because the stronger force would turn hydrogen into helium. On the other hand, if the strong nuclear force were just 5% weaker, hydrogen would be all we have.
- Radioactive decay is governed by the weak nuclear force. If this force were either weaker or stronger, heavy elements such as carbon, which are necessary for life, would not have formed.[ix]
Evidence of Fine Tuning
That such small changes could have prevented even the possibility of life suggests to many that our universe has been “fine-tuned”. As philosopher Anthony Flew puts it, “the laws of nature seem to have been crafted so as to move the universe toward the emergence and sustenance of life.”[x] Since these “settings” aren’t required by the natural laws themselves, how do we explain the fact that our universe is life sustaining?
One possibility is it’s all just a coincidence. But it’s important to recognize, if it is a coincidence, it’s a huge coincidence. The three examples above are far from a complete list of the apparent fine-tuning of the universe. There are at least twenty different fundamental parameters that “must have values that fall within highly restricted ranges in order for life to be present.”[xi] When we consider that those parameters could have taken on a wide range of different values, the odds of them having the precise life-sustaining values they do is very low. Consider the following illustration given by Layman:
Imagine that you receive a “Creation Machine” for Christmas. The Creation Machine has over twenty dials on it. You set the dials and push the start button to create a universe. One of the dials is labeled “Force of Gravity.” The dial has 1040 marks around it. Now, 1040 is a big number: 1040=10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. If you set the “Force of Gravity” dial, but are off by one mark, you will get a universe that does not contain life. The same holds true for each of the dials.[xii]
Just a Coincidence?
All in all, it seems too big a coincidence to believe the universe just happens to support life. Since order is typically the result of some sort of intelligence, it seems more reasonable to believe the universe was intentionally designed to permit life. That doesn’t seem to be that big of a jump given we’ve already concluded in the previous sections that there must have been a supernatural and personal cause of the universe.
What about the Possibility of a Multiverse?
In the previous two sections, we looked at two lines of evidence that suggest a personal cause lies behind the universe. One of the lines of evidence was the specifically life-sustaining order we find in the universe. The odds against that being a mere coincidence are high. As a result, many believe it’s more reasonable to conclude God must have specifically designed the universe to be life sustaining. Others, however, argue that reads too much into the evidence. They acknowledge, at first glance, the universe does appear to be designed. But appearances can be deceiving. The odds seem to be against a life-sustaining universe existing in the absence of design. But what if we could change the odds?
Some argue we think the odds are against a life-sustaining universe because we’re thinking in terms of there being only one universe. What if there were multiple universes? In that event, the odds of a life-sustaining universe would drastically improve. If you have enough universes, the odds are you’re eventually going to find at least one that is capable of sustaining life. The possibility of a “multiverse” is thus set up against the argument that God designed the universe. The question is, how probable is the existence of a “multiverse?”
Problems with Multiverse Scenarios
Some physicists have offered possible models of the origins of the universe that in theory would allow for the possibility of there being multiple universes. One theory (“the oscillating universe model”), for example, suggests there have been many different big bangs. In each big bang, a new universe is created with different fundamental parameters. That universe expands until it eventually reaches a point where it collapses back on itself in a “big crunch”. At that point, the process starts over with another big bang. Another model (“the quantum fluctuation model”) proposes that multiple universes have been created as the result of multiple fluctuations within a pre-existing quantum vacuum.
It’s true these multiverse scenarios might be possible. But is there any reason to think any of these options is more probable than the design explanation? I would argue there isn’t. For one, no version of the multiverse has reached any sort of consensus within the scientific community. As Craig notes, “while such theories are possible, it has been the overwhelming verdict of the scientific community than (sic) none of them is more probable than the big bang theory. The devil is in the details and, once you get down to specifics you find that there is no mathematically consistent model that has been so successful in its predictions or as corroborated by the evidence as the traditional big bang theory.”[xiii]
One problem with the oscillating universe model, for example, is that it isn’t consistent with what we know about the expansion of the universe. In order for the universe to collapse back in upon itself, the rate of expansion has to steadily decrease so that other forces can become strong enough to reverse the process. However, it appears the rate of expansion is actually increasing. There are other problems with the oscillation model, but that alone seems to render the theory unworkable.[xiv]
With regard to the quantum fluctuation model, even if there were an original quantum vacuum, we’d still have the question of where the quantum vacuum came from. If the quantum vacuum has a prior cause, we start to run the risk of infinite regress. If it didn’t have a prior cause, we’re forced to say the quantum vacuum either sprung into existence out of nothing, which seems unlikely, or it is eternal. But, if it’s eternal, we have the “yellow and blue make green” problem we discussed in the previous two articles. Our universe started expanding at a particular point, and as we saw, it’s difficult to see how an eternal natural cause (in this case the quantum vacuum) can explain why that expansion had a beginning. An eternal cause ought to have an eternal effect.
The Question of Probability
So, it’s true the existence of multiple universes would increase the odds there would be at least one universe sufficiently ordered and finely tuned to allow life. But by itself, that doesn’t give us any reason to believe multiple universes actually exist. As Flew explains, “the fact that it is logically possible that there are multiple universes with their own laws of nature does not show that such universes do exist. There is currently no evidence in support of a multiverse. It remains a speculative idea.”[xv] Without adequate evidence to support it, there is no reason to prefer the multiverse explanation to a design explanation, especially when the design argument actually fits the evidence we have.
Consider an illustration that has become common in the debate on God’s existence. It’s often said the odds of the universe coming about by chance is roughly the same as giving keyboards to a bunch of monkeys and having them produce the complete works of Shakespeare. The counter, of course, is that if you give the monkeys enough time, the odds are that’s exactly what will happen.
However, while it’s true that enough monkeys pounding on enough keyboards for a long enough time will eventually produce the works of Shakespeare, the question is what conclusion will you actually reach when you come across a copy of Romeo and Juliet? Will you conclude a monkey wrote it? You might, if you had evidence there actually were monkeys who had been working on it for billions of years. You might also accept that explanation if you had no other option. But in the absence of specific evidence that monkeys had been working on it for that long, and given you have the option to say Shakespeare wrote it, you probably wouldn’t take the monkey scenario seriously.
That’s essentially the situation we find ourselves in when it comes to the debate on God’s existence. An eternal personal cause seems to provide an adequate explanation for why an intelligible life-sustaining universe exists. Other alternatives might initially seem conceivable. But it turns out they don’t actually fit the evidence we currently have. So why would anyone prefer the multiverse alternative? It seems to me the only reason would be if they had already ruled God out at the start. If we knew beforehand there was no God, then we would obviously prefer the multiverse explanation. Even if there were very little evidence to support it, we’d still have to accept it if our only other option were God and we had already ruled him out. The problem is there is no way to rule God out beforehand. The very question we’re trying to answer is whether God exists. To rule him out at the start is to beg the question.
When we start with God as a live option, as we’ve seen in the previous sections, we’re forced to acknowledge his existence fits much of the evidence we have. Specifically, God’s existence explains why the universe started expanding, exhibits remarkable order, and sustains life. No natural explanation, not even the multiverse, works as well. Given that, God seems to be the most probable explanation for the existence of the universe. The existence of the universe in turn, therefore, provides substantial evidence for God’s existence.
[i] Stephen C. Layman, Letters to Doubting Thomas: A Case for the Existence of God, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 8
[ii] Brian Clegg, Before the Big Bang: The Prehistory of Our Universe (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2009), 92.
[iii] William Lane Craig and Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, God? A Debate Between a Christian and an Atheist. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 5
[vi] Ibid., 6.
[vii] Ibid., 5.
[ix] Layman, Doubting Thomas, 110
[x] Anthony Flew and Abraham Varghese, There is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2007), 114
[xi] Layman, Doubting Thomas, 111.
[xiii] William Lane Craig and J.P. Moreland, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2003),, 477.
[xiv] Bruce Reichenbach, “Cosmological Argument,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2010).
[xv] Flew and Varghese, There is a God, 119.