Arguing for God

The field of Christian apologetics often forms arguments for the existence of God, and in doing so knows that God needs no defense though human minds are made to think and reason and what the human mind wants is a reasonable explanation for the existence of God. Many want belief in God to be reasonable.

Do you think argument from cause or origins is a compelling argument for God? 

Perhaps the first and core argument for God’s existence is called the cosmological argument. It goes back to Aristotle.

This can be called the “Classical cosmological argument”:

    • Everything that has a beginning of its existence has a cause of its existence;
    • The universe has a beginning of its existence;
      Therefore:
    • The universe has a cause of its existence.

But there is a newer form of this classic argument called the Kalam argument, and it probably most connected to William Lane Craig. Bill Craig formulates the argument with an additional set of premises:

Argument based on the impossibility of an actual infinite

An actual infinite cannot exist.

An infinite temporal regress of events is an actual infinite.

Therefore, an infinite temporal regress of events cannot exist.

Argument based on the impossibility of the formation of an actual infinite by successive addition.

A collection formed by successive addition cannot be an actual infinite.

The temporal series of past events is a collection formed by successive addition.

Therefore, the temporal series of past events cannot be actually infinite.

I am reading a splendid new book edited by J.P. Moreland, Chad Meiser, and Khaldoun Sweis, Debating Christian Theism, which isolates twenty separable issues in apologetics and Christian theism and arranges each into a positive case and a rebuttal by nothing short of experts in the field. This book can serve as a complete course in Christian apologetics for Christian theism. It must be on all seminary and theological college bookshelves and can serve well as required reading for theologically educated students.

In this book Craig orders his Kalam argument with a set of three basic questions, and this may be seen as a positive case for the existence of God:

1. Did the universe begin to exist? That is, did it have (a) a beginning or was it (b) beginningless?

Craig argues for (a): the earth began to exist. He confirms this through the Big Bang theory.

2. Was the beginning of the universe (c) caused or (d) uncaused?

Craig argues for (c). Thus, the earth began to exist and was caused.

3. Was the cause of the universe (e) personal or (f) impersonal?

Craig argues for (e). Person, so he proposes, flows from the conclusions that the cause is uncaused, changeless, immaterial, timeless — must “transcend both time and space” (16) — thus an “unembodied mind” (17). And there must be “personal, free agency” (17) that brings previously non-existing conditions into reality. This is what everyone means by “God.”

Thus, his kalam argument argues the universe began, its beginning was caused, and it was caused by a personal being, God.

In the next post I want to look at the argument for God from apparent design.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Daniel B.

    The reality is that we know far too little about the early universe and its origins to make any hasty jump to a superintending agency. At our current capacities we cannot peer back more than 10^-26 seconds after the Big Bang. We simply do not know what existed before these brief moments; we can only speculate.

    Beyond that, there is a high amount of counter-evidence for a teleological view of the universe.

    In the end, belief in an interventionist god (much less the Christian version) cannot be established by philosophical or scientific argument and can only be arrived at by faith.

  • DMH

    “…can only be arrived at by faith.”

    I think I know what you’re getting at but I think a different term might be more helpful- “intuition” perhaps. Intuition includes reason but goes beyond it in broader and (to me at least) mysterious ways. “Faith” should be left in a distinctly Christian context to denote ones relationship to Jesus. For many, the term also means something opposed to reason.

    IMO, in the end, we all (Christian, Buddhist, Atheist,…) intuit beyond the evidence.

  • Josh Steele

    After working my way through Myron Bradley Penner’s “The End of Apologetics,” I guess I’m wondering how useful this is for Christian witness in a postmodern context.

    To be sure, showing how belief in God can be reasonable is helpful. But we (Christians) are not just interested in creating/convincing a crowd of “theists,” right? That is, even if: ‘”there must be “personal, free agency” (17) that brings previously non-existing conditions into reality. This is what everyone means by “God.”’ …Who worships that “God”?

    Drawing heavily on Kierkegaard’s distinctions between “genius” and “apostle,” Penner cogently argues that the modern apologetic enterprise unwittingly carries forward the nihilism at modernity’s core — that by trying to reduce Christianity to a set of objective, universal, and neutral propositions, “modern Christian apologetics subtly undermines the very gospel it seeks to defend and does not offer us a good alternative to the skepticism and ultimate meaninglessness of the modern secular condition” (Penner, 49).

    Thoughts?
    (Penner’s book: http://www.amazon.com/End-Apologetics-The-Christian-Postmodern/dp/0801035988;
    Helpful interview: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/peterenns/2013/06/is-christian-apologetics-secular-and-unbiblical-an-interview-with-myron-penner/

  • Rory Tyer

    I admire your ability to make a strong counter-assertion to Scot’s brief overview of Bill Craig’s (and others’) work, but “the reality is” that you’d have to do a bit more than that to demonstrate constructive engagement with these lines of argumentation.

  • Andrew Dowling

    It’s still the strongest argument against pure naturalistic materialism, but it doesn’t necessarily posit the idea of the omnipotent God of orthodox (small ‘o’) Jewish/Christian theology. I find it interesting that the evangelical tradition always seems to jump on the back of the idea that God and certain doctrinal claims of Christianity “can be proven,” thus the popularity of Craig. But this ends up being a losing proposition and in my opinion actually harms the faith overall.

  • scotmcknight

    How do you think it harms the faith?

  • http://lukelivingthetension.blogspot.com/ Luke Harms

    The notion of a beginning is self-referential in the cosmological argument, as the word “begin” presupposes our intutions about the asymmetry of time. But recent physics has demonstrated that the asymmetry of time is likely an artifact of the initial conditions of the universe (though even the word “initial” could be taken to be similarly self-referential here). There could have been a period before the inflationary epoch where time was indeed symmetrical, and where the causal arrow of time that the cosmological argument depends on would have been inconsistent with reality. If conditions in this pre-inflation, T-symmetric universe then settled into a state similar to what we know today, then it would not be the beginning of existence per se, but rather the beginning of the existence we recognize, with its hallmark asymmetrical time and the causal arrow of time that determines our reality.
    One could argue that it was God who orchestrated the transition, but one could just as easily argue that the probablisitc variance of quantum mechanics was the catalyst for the conversion. In any case, I think the Newtownian view of time as absolute that tends to be a foundational element of similarly constructed cosmological arguments requires some new analysis. I don’t think that this is necessarily a fatal flaw for cosmological arguments, but I do think it requires that they be reconstructed to take into account modern advances in physics and cosmology.
    But really, I’m with Josh Steele and Andrew Dowling. This stuff is fun to talk about amongst Christians, but I honestly think it can end up doing more harm than good. Apologetics as a discipline is firmly rooted in modernist epistemology, with the goal being logical validity and metaphysical certainty, but I can’t help but think that Love isn’t always a logical enterprise, and certainty can be an escape hatch for us to avoid honestly working out our own salvation with fear and trembling.

  • Phil Miller

    Apologetics as a discipline is firmly rooted in modernist epistemology,
    with the goal being logical validity and metaphysical certainty, but I
    can’t help but think that Love isn’t always a logical enterprise, and
    certainty can be an escape hatch for us to avoid honestly working out
    our own salvation with fear and trembling.

    I understand where this is coming from. I’ve made similar comments myself in the past. I don’t think, however, the whole world has moved past the modernist epistemology. In some areas, it’s embraced it even more. Men like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, for example, still manage to convince people with arguments that are fundamentally modernist in nature. I think that’s the one reason why it’s OK to have some answers at the ready. These questions do come up.

  • Steve_Winnipeg_Canada

    “Apologetics as a discipline is firmly rooted in modernist epistemology…”

    This couldn’t possibly be true of all Christian apologetics. Apologetics is an activity as old as the Faith itself. The Church fathers, for example, could hardly be examples of modernity. By all means, don’t be a fan of Lane Craig it he doesn’t float your boat – but this is kind of an oversimplified, sweeping statement.

  • http://lukelivingthetension.blogspot.com/ Luke Harms

    I’m with you, but I think we can encourage the asking of better questions in conjunction with looking for answers, yeah? Advances in science and philosophy weigh just as heavily on the fundamentalism of certain New Atheists as they do on us. I guess I just long for a broader conversation, like what all of this intellectual posturing really gains us (“us” can refer to those on either side of the argument) in the long run.

  • http://lukelivingthetension.blogspot.com/ Luke Harms

    “Apologetics in its current incarnation…” There you go.

  • Andrew Dowling

    Because the evidence, as in hard evidence (claiming spiritual evidence is a whole other discussion) isn’t there . . .apologetic arguments only work to ease the doubts of people who are already believers (Craig’s audience). But if someone claims that Christianity lives or dies on the historicity of the Bible or certain doctrinal claims (for example, the virgin birth), their faith will quaver should they delve into the history/scholarship and find the traditional apologetic arguments to be full of holes, as has happened among many people raised on inerrancy. Craig makes ridiculous statements like the bodily resurrection of Jesus can be proven as historical fact (and he claims this is conceded by “the majority of scholars”) . . which is simply not true (if it was there would be a little less religious variety among Earth;s 7+ billion people)

    And frankly, I view a faith based on the idea that “my God can be proven . . he’s the all-powerful real deal. The other Gods are fake” is a shallow faith anyway. Now I’m not saying the Bible could be complete fiction and Christianity would still be viable, but how and where the Bible is historical and/or more theological construction (dare I say ‘myth’) is way more complicated and nuanced than people like Craig are willing to concede.

  • http://deadheroesdontsave.com/ Mike Barlotta

    In reading thru the comments, I am not sure why apologetics would undermine the gospel or anyone’s faith.

    Apologetic arguments can be made to present a reasonable and rationale reason for why someone has accepted to trust (have faith) in the God of the Scriptures (OT/NT). Faith is trusting – and we should be able to defend what we are trusting. I am no advocate of blind faith.

    After all there are some claims that Christianity does live or die on since does give us a set of “historical” claims. And Paul himself says that if Jesus did not really rise from the dead at a point in time in human history than Christianity is essentially false.

    The cosmological/kalam argument by itself does not point someone to the God of the Scriptures. But it does build a foundation from which one can build to help someone get there.

    I think if we expect an iron clad, philosophically and historically certain apologetic argument (or series of arguments) than we will have problems in our walk and invite doubt. But anyone who questions their worldview and places it under scrutiny will find that few claims (if any) can have the kind of certitude we might want.

    Apologetics was certainly a key part of my growth in Christ.

  • http://morechrist.blogspot.com K.W. Leslie

    Apologetics was a detriment to my growth in Christ. It gave me an excuse to be argumentative and hostile, instead of developing the fruit of the Spirit, i.e. kindness, gentleness, patience, self-control, and love for my opponents.

    Plus it kept me focused on trying to defend young-earth creationism instead of following the Sermon on the Mount.

    Considering that only 5 percent of Americans are nontheist, it meant spending an inordinate amount of time on them, and not on winning the 95 percent who do believe in God, towards a relationship and greater understanding of him. It meant arguing over minor issues instead of pursuing Christ and encouraging others to do likewise.

    Apologetics can make us feel better about the science and logic behind our worldview, and that’s perfectly fine. But that should be all we do with it. It’s not a test for orthodoxy, and certainly not a means of evangelism.

  • http://morechrist.blogspot.com K.W. Leslie

    Okay, so a collection formed by successive addition isn’t an actual infinite. That still doesn’t mean an actual infinite doesn’t exist. You’re trying to prove the non-existence of something, which is a logical impossibility — a factwe point out to atheists all the time! So the Kalam argument doesn’t work for me.

    The argument from cause presumes the cause of the universe is an intelligent one. But we have no basis, other than revelation, to make that presumption. So no; it’s not that compelling.

  • http://deadheroesdontsave.com/ Mike Barlotta

    Apologetics was a detriment to my growth in Christ. It gave me an excuse to be argumentative and hostile, instead of developing the fruit of the Spirit,

    I guess that was the point of my comment, apologetics is not the problem. Our use of them might be. For you it was a detriment (sorry to hear that), for me it was a catalyst for growth.

    Apologetics, IMO is part of growing. Handling it well is another part of growing. But that growth should (I agree with you here) be shown in how we live and treat others.

  • AHH

    It is unwise for philosophers to masquerade as cosmologists (or vice versa). This is far from my area of physics, but as one commenter pointed out Craig’s argument seems to rely on concepts of time and causation that don’t match modern physics, especially when one tries to think beyond our current Big-Bang-induced universe. Philosophizing about a prior cause to the Big Bang is as nonsensical as talking about what is North of the North Pole.
    I do think the Big Bang (and associated fine tuning that has allowed life to evolve) can be talked about as consistent with theism, in a modest natural theology as Alistair McGrath does. But Craig’s effort at proof is not going to convince the scientifically literate, and may give a sandy foundation to those who buy into it.

    I would also say that, even more so in our postmodern era than before, trying to argue people into the faith is ineffective and counterproductive for most people.

    Finally, as others have mentioned, there is danger in this sort of Jesus-free apologetics, where one ends up with an anonymous Designer rather than the triune, crucified, and resurrected God. For some it might be a first step, but when these arguments are the focus it is too easy to end up with a “God of the philosophers” (especially appropriate phrase in this case). At which point one is every bit as lost as an atheist is.

  • http://relevancy22.blogspot.com/ Russ Slater

    I think I could as easily argue for the opposite of each of Craig’s surmises… at base he is using classic cosmological cause of origins for his corollaries.
    Moreover, “ex nihilo creation” becomes a moot point to the logic of quantum physics…. Meaning that there is no “ex nihilo” to be created from because the universe has been shown to have a beginningless mass. I say beginningless because time was non-existent in this dense gravitational mass.
    Further, within our given dimensionality we may only surmise that the universe’s originating mass had a quantum-like structure thus giving its chaotic nature a dense quantum-like order where time is liquefied into spatial constructs. That is, there was no 4th dimension, and perhaps not even 3 dimensions, just 2 (I’ve yet to read of 1 or 0… 0 presents some intriquing possibilities I think).
    To conclude, God created from something and not from nothing. Which doesn’t mean that He didn’t create this something from nothing, only that for us, in our universe, He created from something (should we chose to follow out the logic of multi-verse physics). This is why “ex nihilo creation” becomes a moot point only important to theologians who wish to argue which side of the theistic fence they are on (e.g, classic theism v. process thot).
    Thus, God created using a structure that might have been pre-determinative to His efforts, so that He solidified it into the structure we now know it to be; and perhaps from a structure that held infinite possibilities (as a multi-universe structure must be supposed). Whichever way, from this dense, beginningless mass evolved chaos, but a chaos that had a chaotic quantum order within it (based upon our present universe’s “quantum structure”). Meaning that God created from something and not from nothing within our present universe.

  • http://www.naturalspirituality.wordpress.com/ Howard Pepper

    The main crux of this post is #3 (e) – God as “personal,” as far as I’m concerned…. And then defining (!) personal.

    I’d agree with the wording above, as far as it goes. But knowing orthodox Christianity in pretty good depth, Evangelicalism in particular, and Craig’s approach a bit, I suspect we’d diverge significantly upon defining “personal.”

    Given a choice of ONLY “personal” or “impersonal”, I’ll go with personal. (And I realize we don’t have language for a 3rd category.) But “personal” is too closely connected with the idea of individual “personality” or “distinct characteristics” (among peers, which God, or “uncaused cause” has none of)…. So our language and our concepts starting getting all confused unless we are very careful (even most scholars are not, in this regard, I feel).

    I agree with commenters re. apologetics or proofs for God as serving (or failing to serve) mainly those who already believe in God at some level… The real important and more practical, personally valuable stuff comes upon describing what KIND of God exists and how we can learn of, encounter, follow this God.

    Process theology does the best job, for me, from among all my biblical and other explorings, of describing God…. one who is “personal” (I honestly do think in those terms) yet not “supernatural” in the interventionist conception of orthodox Christianity or traditional theism.

  • Ben Nasmith

    I personally find apologetics extremely encouraging. Over the past couple years, apologists like WL Craig have helped me to put to rest many concerns I had left cooking on the “back burner”. Once I realized that all things ultimately point to Jesus, such as philosophy, physics, cosmology, contingency, morality, teleology, etc, I was able to relax about the so called “threats” to my faith. I suspect apologetics has a powerful role to play in discipleship and encouragment.

    Nevertheless, there is the concern that apologetic arguments do not yield the God that we worship as we know him. There can be endless discussion of mere theism for example. I think philosopher Paul Moser does an excellent job of outlining these concerns in his recent “The Severity of God”, and “The Evidence for God.” He’s no friend of natural theology and worth a read by anyone (like myself) who is nevertheless drawn to it.

  • Ben Nasmith

    What recent physics are you talking about? Are you describing the view that time reverses directions at the “singularity”? If so, check out p. 157 of Craig’s Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology chapter – http://commonsenseatheism.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/05/craig-and-sinclair-the-kalam-cosmological-argument.pdf

  • Ben Nasmith

    Perhaps a Christian witness involves challenging the postmodern context rather than adapting to it. I think philosopher Paul Moser does an excellent job of critiquing typical natural theology-based apologetics without adapting to postmodernism. See for example his “Christ-shaped philosophy” lecture – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L765lDVN0iw and the follow up discussion at the EPS – http://www.epsociety.org/library/articles.asp?pid=131.

  • Rob Bradford

    Question about the Big Bang: When the Big Bang occurred, where did that infinitely dense, infinitely small bunch of matter come from? Was it preexisting or did the Big Bang create its own resources for a beginning? Sort of like the chicken and egg problem.
    One principle that I never see in discussions that involve creation and God, is that of entropy. This principle paraphrased, states that the universe is constantly winding down; that order always collapses into disorder; that the universe’s final destiny is the consistent cooling down of particles so that eventually particles and their constituents stop moving. Now we know that biological organisms like snails, birds, ants, and humans apparently violate the law of entropy since we are constantly adding, repairing and replacing cells. But, in the end, we too succumb to entropy’s process. So how does entropy play in our descriptions of creation? Does this have particular inferences for Jesus’ resurrection?

  • Phil Miller

    Now we know that biological organisms like snails, birds, ants, and
    humans apparently violate the law of entropy since we are constantly
    adding, repairing and replacing cells. But, in the end, we too succumb
    to entropy’s process.

    Well, you kind of corrected the statement you made in the first sentence with the second, but none of the organisms you mentioned are actually violating the law of entropy. The entropy of a closed system never decreases, but these organisms aren’t closed systems. There’s always inputs into the system. I’m not saying you were necessarily doing this, but I still hear so many Christians try to use the Second Law of Thermodynamics as a way to argue against evolution, and really, it’s such a poor argument. The earth itself isn’t a closed system, neither is the solar system, or the galaxy.

    That being said… I do think that your later point about the resurrection being a sort of reversal of the law of entropy is on point. In some way, the promise that God will renew and restore Creation goes against what science predicts for the future of the cosmos.

  • AHH

    On your Big Bang question, the answer is “we don’t know”. But phrasing it as where it “came from” is already a problem as it implies a temporal sequence. Modern physics would say that not only space but also time as we know it originated with the BB.

    As for entropy (my field is thermodynamics, although not applied to cosmology), the universe has been obeying the 2nd Law of Thermo nicely since the Big Bang as it expands and cools off. But you can’t really apply it to “creation” if you identify that with the BB. The 2nd Law is an observational reality of our known universe, but you can’t apply it (at least not in the same way) to some hypothetical structure in which our universe might be embedded.
    Finally I will echo Phil Miller about how bad it is when some Christians use the 2nd Law of Thermo as an anti-evolution argument. I always say that, when you hear an apologist use that argument, it is a sure sign they don’t know what they are talking about, so you should probably ignore what they have to say.

  • Rob Bradford

    Thanks for your reply. As a biology teacher, what I tried to do for students was to help them see that living organisms only “appear” to violate the 2nd Law by sustaining internal order. As open systems, we’re all going to succumb to entropy.
    Now regarding the BB. I have heard Christian apologists argue that the BB coincides with the biblical account of creation because of the presence of a “beginning”. The problem with their argument is that the BB is not translatable into theological language, i.e. God. Just because we know something about a natural event or organism, we have no license to give a theological answer to its existence. I have no argument with evolution and natural selection as the best explanation we have regarding the changes over time in living organisms. In fact, I will be teaching an introductory class on evolution and natural selection to my Sunday school class in October.

  • Phil Miller

    I will be teaching an introductory class on evolution and natural selection to my Sunday school class in October.

    Very cool! What kind of church do you attend, if you don’t mind me asking?

    Your previous comment now makes more sense when I see how you were using the word “apparently”.

  • Rob Bradford

    We attend the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). This more inclusive group formed originally out of the “Restoration Movement” in the early 1800′s in the US. Thanks for your comments.

  • Robert Lee White

    From your comment, you don’t seem very familiar with Dr. Craig. He takes cosmology very, very seriously as a science. Check out his debate with Peter Millican if you want to see him defend some of the finer points, and he holds his own well.

    “Philosophizing about a prior cause to the Big Bang is as nonsensical as talking about what is North of the North Pole.”

    That isn’t true — at least if pointed at Dr. Craig. Craig argues that we know of causes in nature that exist simultaneously with their effect, and that is how he envisions God invoking the big bang. Repeatedly, Craig says that there is nothing “before” the big bang, but “beyond.”

    I’m not saying Craig’s arguments ultimately go through, just that you are not taking Craig’s arguments seriously. I’ve watched literally 50+ hours of debates with Craig against plenty of physicists, and it’s clear his arguments have to be taken seriously. He’s no naive theologian who thinks he can just throw in a scientific argument or two for good measure (see the recent article about Craig in The Chronicle of Higher Education for more support on this). In fact, one of Craig’s specializations in his career has been on the theory of time — if anyone can talk about time, it’s Craig! I’ve read in even atheistic articles that Craig has made significant contributions to the philosophy of time.

    Finally, to your last point (about not taking the focus off of Jesus), I totally agree, and Dr. Craig seems to as well. He always (that I’ve seen) ends his opening speech saying that the earliest Christians knew their faith as an immediate experience of Jesus, not as sterile philosophizing, and therefore, Craig says, focusing on the intellectual arguments can put you in danger of losing sight of Jesus himself. Also, Dr. Craig (as well as I would assume other apologists that use the argument) only *starts* with the cosmological argument and then follows through with the moral argument as well as an argument for the historicity of the Resurrection. Because, like you said, otherwise you are left with a very generic creator.

    Being a big fan of Craig, just had to fill out the picture a little bit more. :)

  • Robert Lee White

    Apologetics basically saved my faith. I was very, very afraid there wasn’t anything intellectually to the faith (having grown up in it myself and just accepted it), and so people like Dr. Craig literally helped save my faith by showing me that yes, there really is strong, rational arguments and defenses for the faith.


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