Many of us have heard an existence of God argument based on the beginning of the universe. Have you heard the one based on a cup of coffee? Ozark Christian College academic dean Chad Ragsdale explores a classic but lesser known argument for God’s existence.
“By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.” (Hebrews 11:3)
“Does God exist?” This is the second question of importance that a person can think to ask. It is second not because it is a secondary question but only because the first question is, “Am I the type of person who cares to take the time to ask important questions?” Thinkers of every ideological commitment have been eager to weigh in on the question of God’s existence. It is a “hinge-question,” a question on which the world literally turns, so there is not a small amount of interest in trying to provide an answer.
Theologians have responded to this question in a number of ways. One of the most common responses is the offering of various “theistic proofs.” These are arguments for God’s existence using either reason, experience, or observation of natural phenomena. One of the most common of these arguments is called the cosmological argument for God’s existence.
The Kalam Cosmological Argument
The cosmological argument comes in various forms. (It would be better to say there are numerous cosmological arguments.) In recent years, Christian thinkers like William Lane Craig have popularized a version articulated by medieval Islamic scholars called the Kalam Cosmological Argument (KCA). The KCA is an argument that relies upon a beginning for the universe (as opposed to an eternally existing universe). It can be summarized simply:
- Whatever begins to exist has a cause.
- The universe began to exist.
- Therefore, the universe has a cause.
- This cause for the universe can be none other than God.
The KCA is not above criticism, and some of the premises above can be developed in greater detail, but I generally find KCA convincing. It is reasonable to believe that whatever begins to exist has a cause. I have yet to read a compelling challenge to the first premise. Given the weight of scientific evidence as well as the irrationality of an infinite universe, it is reasonable to conclude that the universe had a beginning. If it had a beginning, it is reasonable to assume that it had a cause. It is reasonable finally to believe that this cause must be outside of the universe and possess a personal will along with infinite power. Thus, God.
“It is reasonable to believe that this cause must be outside of the universe and possess a personal will along with infinite power.”
It has long been a Christian conviction (also Jewish and Muslim) that God created the universe “out of nothing.” The oft-used Latin phrase is creatio ex nihilo. Our common observation agrees with the statement made by the ancient Greek philosopher Parmenides that “nothing comes from nothing” (ex nihilo nihil fit). That is what makes creation so miraculous, something only accomplished by God. He alone creates from nothing.
Many have observed that the Bible doesn’t explicitly state that God created the universe out of nothing. Genesis 1:1 simply says that “in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” There has been a lot of conversation about the relationship between the first verse of Genesis and the second which tells us that the earth was formless and empty. Does Genesis 1:2 tell us that God’s creation amounts to giving form to the formless and filling the empty rather than creating “from nothing?” Maybe, although I’m not convinced.
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”
The closest the Bible comes to explicitly affirming creation from nothing is in Hebrews 11:3 where we are told that “by faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.”
As a Christian, I believe in the existence of invisible substances. In other words, I believe that the invisible spiritual realm is real. So, did God create the visible realm out of pre-existing spiritual substances? I suppose you could read the verse in this way, but that doesn’t really give us reason to completely abandon the KCA. The KCA is a chronological argument saying that there was a miraculous moment that the visible universe came into existence. Hebrews 11:3 assumes this chronological argument.
Another Cosmological Argument?
But there are other ways of making cosmological arguments other than relying on chronological creation. Edward Feser has carefully articulated several of these arguments in his book Five Proofs of the Existence of God. His first proof is informed by Aristotle who observed that all change involves the actualization of a potential.
A hot cup of coffee has the potential to become cold. Over time, that potential becomes actual. But that actualization doesn’t happen without a cause. In the case of the coffee, cool air circulating in the room moved the coffee from potentially cold to actually cold. Feser puts it this way: “So, change occurs, and any change requires a cause; or to put it less colloquially but more precisely, some potentials are actualized, and when they are, there must be something already actual which actualizes them.”
“That actualization doesn’t happen without a cause.”
This difference allows Feser to propose what he calls a hierarchical causation in place of the merely chronological causation of the KCA. In other words, this version of the cosmological argument doesn’t rely on a moment in time that the universe came into existence which could arguably make it more useful since it doesn’t get bogged down in arguing about whether or not the universe has always existed. Hierarchical causation recognizes that at any given moment, all actualities depend on a long line of changers existing all at the same time.
An illustration would help. The coffee cup on my desk depends on my desk for support. At the same time, my desk depends on the floor. At the same time, the floor of this building depends on the earth. But what does the earth depend on? What supports the earth? It’s not enough to conclude that the earth “just is.” The earth actually exists which means that it depends on something for its existence. Maybe the earth exists because the laws of physics support its existence. But what actualizes the laws of physics?
“But what actualizes the law of physics?”
The cup, the desk, the floor, even the earth and the laws of physics have what Feser calls “derivative power.” Their existence relies on sustaining power from further down the chain of causes. But this chain can’t just go on forever. There must be some non-derivative power that has the ability to produce all of the effects at the same time. In other words, there must be something fully actualized which holds all things up–cups, desks, planets, and laws of physics–without having to be held up itself. We call that something God.
Does the Bible support this version of the cosmological argument? I believe it does. We only need to look in a different part of Hebrews. In Hebrews 1:2, the author tells us that the Son is the one “through whom also [God] made the universe.” This might be understood as another nod to creation out of nothing, but then he adds in the next verse:
“The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.” (Hebrews 1:3)
There is a parallel verse in Colossians 1:17 where Paul says that Jesus is “before all things, and in him all things hold together.” You might argue that neither Paul nor Hebrews is attempting to make sophisticated philosophical arguments here. They were simply making grand statements about the preeminence of Jesus. I don’t see any reason for that supposition. Paul and Hebrews were doing much more than just saying, “By the way, Jesus is pretty awesome.” They were making the bold claim that the ongoing existence of all things depends upon the power of Jesus. He didn’t just bring the universe into existence. He is presently sustaining the universe with his non-derivative power.
Think about that. The coffee cup sitting on your desk is proof of God’s existence and Jesus’ power.
 If you are feeling really ambitious, you can read my summary of Feser’s very detailed arguments here.