Three Possible Answers
According to Paul, the primary evidence that God exists appears in "the things that are made"; that is, in the universe God created.
For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse.
The revelation of God through His creation is called natural revelation. Commentators such as Godet argue that "eternal" modifies only "power" (1). The two attributes of God especially displayed by created things are therefore His eternal power and His Godhead.
Digging deeper into the original text, we find that the word translated "eternal" means ever-enduring and the word translated "Godhead" means divinity. Refinement of these concepts gives us better understanding of what we learn when we contemplate the universe.
- We see first that the universe must have originated in a creative agency both powerful and ever-enduring. It was powerful to the extent that it could produce a universe as incomprehensibly great as ours, and it was enduring to the extent that it has always been able, and apparently will always be able, to sustain the universe.
- Our next discovery is that the universe must have originated in a divine Creator.
The basic difference between power and divinity is that a power can be impersonal, but a divinity must be personal. There are people today who are willing to believe in a cosmic force, but not in a personal God. Yet the world around us leaves no doubt that the Creator is a person.
How exactly does creation show the power and divinity of the Creator? The answer is the main theme of classic apologetics, which uses nature and human experience as starting points for systematic reasoning leading to knowledge of what God is like. Each line of reasoning is known as a theistic argument. The four primary arguments are the cosmological, the teleological, the moral, and the ontological. Besides these there are several others.
The cosmological argument is the one leading to the conclusion that the universe must have originated in an act of creation by an ever-enduring power. The greatness of that power is suggested by the size of the universe. It is now estimated that in the visible universe there may be as many as 500 billion galaxies. Who knows how many are beyond sight? Remember that if you tried counting to one billion, it would take you over thirty years even at a pace of one number per second.
The cosmological argument recognizes three possible answers to the question, "Where did the universe come from?"
- It sprang from nothing.
- It existed forever.
- It was created.
Essentially, the argument establishes the last possibility by showing the absurdity of the first two. It says that the universe must have been created because it could not have sprung from nothing. Nor could it have existed forever.
The Possibility That the Universe Sprang from Nothing
This answer to the question of origins violates the basic principle that nothing comes from nothing and produces nothing. Imagine we observed nothing for a long time. Would it ever turn into something? Suppose we filled a big box with nothing and sat watching the nothing inside through a window in the top. How long would we wait before something appeared? Would we ever see even a particle of dust suddenly materialize? Thus, is it likely that once long ago nothing created the whole universe?
Things do not spontaneously leap into existence. If they did, anything whatever could happen at any moment. Reality would be completely disordered. I might wake up one morning and find a dinosaur in the front yard or two suns in the sky. Or I might turn around right now and find a lion looking over my shoulder.
Also, if something might come from nothing, then something might go to nothing. I might blink my eyes and the house around me would disappear, leaving me sitting on the lawn. But have we ever seen things suddenly appear or disappear without a cause? Certainly not.
Things do not arise from nothing. They arise from causes. The principle that every effect has an adequate cause is known as the law of causality. God has engraved the principle of causality deep into our thinking so that we will be certain to discover His existence. No one has ever seen an exception to this law. Nor does anyone doubt it. We cannot deny anything so fundamental. We depend on it as we seek to cope with the demands of the real world. Everything we do builds on our understanding that certain effects come only as a result of certain causes.
We eat food because we are sure that hunger causes death. We move out of the way when a car is bearing down on us because we know that another cause of death is collision between a car and a body. But is nothing a cause of death? No. Nor could it have been the cause of the universe.
The Possibility That the Universe Existed Forever
The second answer to the question of origins—that the universe has existed forever—founders on one of the basic laws of science, the Second Law of Thermodynamics. This law forces modern science to the conclusion that the universe had a beginning. Why? According to this law, disorder in the universe must constantly increase. Disorder is called entropy. We can see this law illustrated in our own experience. What happens to a healthy youth, a beautiful painting, combed hair, the washed face of a child, preparations for a perfect wedding? The youth becomes old and decrepit. The painting fades and flakes away. The hair becomes rumpled. The face acquires new dirt and stain. The wedding suffers unexpected mishaps.
All these changes would show that in nature, there is a pervasive tendency toward disorder, decay, and corruption. From a scientific point of view, as expressed in the Second Law of Thermodynamics, energy is constantly draining to an unusable form. Much of the radiation from stars, for example, never collides with anything or transfers its energy to anything else. In an eternal universe, it would race forever through the vast sink of outer space. Eventually, if allowed to continue for long eons into the future, the universe would subside to a state of uniform low temperature, close to absolute zero. There would be no more stars or glowing planets. Life would be impossible. Everything, everywhere, would be dark, quiet, and inconceivably cold. Nothing would remain but a burnt-out cosmic wilderness. This final state that the Second Law of Thermodynamics dictates for the universe is known as "heat death."
The same law that reveals the end of the universe also tells much about its origin. If energy is dissipating, the universe could not have existed before some point in the past when energy was undissipated. We come to the same conclusion using simple analogies. If everything in nature is coming apart like a snowman on a hot day, there must have been a time when everything was put together. Or if everything is running down like a clock, there must have been a time when everything was wound up. The conclusion we cannot avoid is that the universe must have had a definite beginning.
Although we have offered a highly simplified interpretation of the second law of thermodynamics, you can be assured that this law is one of the best-founded laws of science, and that it undoubtedly eliminates the possibility that the universe has always existed.
The Prevailing View of Origins in the Last Days
One of the most illuminating passages in Scripture concerning our time in history is in Peter's second epistle.
3 Knowing this first, that there shall come in the last days scoffers, walking after their own lusts,
4 And saying, Where is the promise of his coming? for since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of the creation.
5 For this they willingly are ignorant of, that by the word of God the heavens were of old, and the earth standing out of the water and in the water:
6 Whereby the world that then was, being overflowed with water, perished.
2 Peter 3:3-6
The apostle warns us that the prevailing view of origins in the Last Days will have three features.
- According to verse 4, people will believe in a "beginning." Indeed, because of the second law of thermodynamics, it is generally accepted today that the universe originated at a definite time. The event which is believed to have given all matter the impetus leading to its present motions is called the Big Bang. Supposedly, all the matter of the universe was originally squeezed into a huge fireball called the ylem, but being superdense, the ylem was supremely unstable. Therefore, within a moment after coming into existence, it must have exploded, and from this Big Bang all matter and energy began to race outward to the vast reaches of space. That outward motion has never ceased. At the present time, presumed to be billions of years after the Big Bang, every celestial body is still moving rapidly away from every other celestial body. This picture of origins is, however, merely false speculation, as we will see later.
- According to verse 5, people will believe that in the history of the earth there have been no unusual events like the Flood. Past changes in the earth have always been like the gradual changes we see today. The present condition and appearance of the earth owe nothing to great catastrophes; rather, they are the end product of a uniform development. Indeed, this is the dominant view of modern science. The doctrine that the past is like the present is known in science as uniformitarianism.
- According to verse 5, they will believe that the beginning was a beginning of creation. In the Greek, the article "the" is missing. The original does not say "from the beginning of the creation." The word creation therefore refers to a creative process. In other words, the scoffers are acknowledging that everything did not suddenly appear in its present form. Although they do not believe in a creator, they believe that since the beginning a creative process has been at work to bring the universe from a state of primordial chaos to the elegant complexity we see today. The doctrine that the universe has undergone such a development is known in science as evolution. Together, the doctrines of uniformitarianism and evolution imply that the universe is very old.
Mythology Masquerading as Science
The basic weakness of Big Bang Theory is its failure to explain where the ylem came from. Two possibilities can be eliminated. It could not have existed for an eternity prior to banging because, according to the laws of physics, it must have been supremely unstable and explosive. Also, it has been proved that in terms of these laws, the ylem could not have been preceded by a contraction of the universe, because gravity is not a strong enough force to cause a universe such as ours to collapse. Recent speculation imagines that the big fireball arose by rapid inflation of a ball about the size of a pea, which in turn came from a quantum fluctuation in nothingness.
Supposedly, according to one recent theory taken seriously by cosmologists, the nothingness from which our universe emerged is continually sending forth bubbles of space-time with varying characteristics. Most of these bubbles do not last long because their characteristics are wrong for survival. There is quick self-destruction. The bubble pops, as it were. The universe we live in, however, is a bubble that worked. At first a pea-sized ball containing pure energy, the universe rapidly inflated to something much larger. At a certain stage of expansion, much energy was transformed into matter, and the ylem appeared. We have two objections to this fanciful theory.
- The theory utterly lacks supportive evidence.
- The theory says that something—the universe—came from nothing. As we have seen, this is untenable.
Such theories are less science than mythology. They resemble all those ancient creation myths that pictured the world emerging from an unstructured chaos—that is, from essentially nothing. The Greeks, for example, believed that heaven and earth, under the names Uranus and Gaia, sprang from a universal empty darkness. According to the Germanic creation myth, originally there was a great void, but after the passage of eons, a world of ice arose on the north and a world of fire on the south. These antitheses pressed against the void and finally collided, producing the first being, the giant Ymir. Many peoples, including the Egyptians and Chinese, thought that the first thing to appear in the cosmic medium was an egg, thereby laying to rest the old question, "Which came first?"
In our day, the accepted stories are similar. As we mentioned, one says that in the original nothingness there suddenly appeared an object strangely like a pea, and that the pea grew until it exploded, forming the heavens. Yet our credulity surpasses ancient man's, for we suppose that the pea carried the substance of a universe enormously larger than the ancients ever imagined. One proponent of a currently popular theory is almost right when he says that it is consistent with ancient theological tradition. The word "pagan" would be a better choice than "theological." The main innovation in the new theory is that it uses the language of mathematics and physics.
Bertrand Russell's Objection to the Cosmological Argument
No doubt the most famous objection to the cosmological argument was the centerpiece of philosopher Bertrand Russell's book, Why I Am Not a Christian. The form of the argument he attacked differs, however, from what we have presented. The argument in its classic form starts from the assumption that every effect must have a cause distinct from itself. It follows that the totality of effects observable within the universe, however far back in time they reach, must have had a cause beyond the universe. Proponents of the cosmological argument have assumed that the first cause of everything must be the same as God, the omnipotent Creator.
Russell objected that if we accept the cosmological argument, we must, to be consistent, apply the law of causality to God Himself and ask, where did God come from? In other words, what was the cause of God? But we can hardly stop there. The cause of God must have had a cause too. So, we quickly become entangled in an infinite regression of causes—in other words, in a series going forever backward. Since no cause can really be the first, the cosmological argument, pretending to establish that God was a first cause, reduces to an absurdity.
In reply, we can say that we have not presented the cosmological argument in its classic form. We have not postulated that everything must have a cause. Rather, as our starting point we have postulated that any particular thing that exists has three possible origins: it sprang from nothing, it has always existed, or it has been created de novo. In considering the origin of the universe, we established the third possibility as correct by a process of elimination. We employed the law of causality for the sole purpose of eliminating the possibility of existence preceded by nothing. The same approach is entirely reasonable in considering the origin of God. Since we cannot rule out the possibility that He existed forever, we are under no compulsion to answer Russell's question, "What was the cause of God?"
Yet we are not repudiating the cosmological argument in its classic form, establishing God as a necessary first cause. A cause need not be distinct from its effect. The right definition of cause, which we will now introduce, merely stipulates that it is something with power to produce the effect, whether or not that effect is distinct.
The merit in our approach is that it does not force us to look beyond a first cause. If that cause has the power of self-generation, it need not depend on anything before. The one cause we might appropriately expect to have such power is God. We cannot by any logical argument eliminate the possibility that He has always originated and sustained His own existence.
Either He has done so, or He was created by a being at least as great as Himself. But if that hypothetical creator of God was not inferior to his creature, he was equally a god of love, and therefore he would surely have revealed himself to man and sought a relationship with him. But no such being has entered man's experience. Therefore, just on empirical grounds, we may decide that God was not created by another, but rather that He is eternally self-generating.
He has ratified this conclusion through revelation. In the Scriptures He inspired, He assures us that "I am the first, and I am the last; and beside me there is no God" (Isa. 44:6). Also, He has said that He is the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end (Rev. 1:8).
Someone might object that our modified definition of cause lets atheists off the hook, for if God can be His own cause, the universe can be its own cause as well—in other words, it is possible that the universe has always existed and is self-existent. Yes, such a result follows. On logical grounds we cannot eliminate the possibility that the universe has existed forever, although we can rule out the possibility that it came from nothing by chance. Still, we can reject the possibility of eternal existence for three reasons.
- We have said that a cause is something with power to produce its effect. But as we will argue in the next lesson, we find nothing in the universe with power to create either itself or anything beyond itself. Therefore, the universe cannot be its own cause.
- As we have argued before, the universe does not have the characteristics of an eternally self-perpetuating system. Rather, it has the characteristics of a system that is decaying from an irrecoverable primordial state.
- It has the characteristics of a system conceived by an intelligent mind. We will elaborate this thesis in our discussion of the teleological argument.