Five Ways We Can Know God Exists--and What These Ways Tell Us About Him
Note: This is part one of a series of five posts about God. These were originally written as an RCIA presentation about God the Father. These posts are in an expanded form, and the presentation as given does not necessarily follow the posts exactly. I was constrained in the presentation itself to keep the time to under about 45 minutes or so, and to be somewhat conversational (sine it was their first formal session). Here is the full written transcript, which goes beyond what I did in the presentation.
In their Handbook for Christian Apologetics, Professors Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli (S.J.) present twenty different arguments for the existence of God. These range from physical to psychological, and form historical to relatively modern: and different of these ways of knowing that God exists will be helpful to different types of people. I want to begin today by outlining briefly a few of these as a sort of extension of the last two of your reflection questions, because each of these arguments also tells us something about God.
The first of these arguments, which traces itself back to Saint Anselm in the 11th century, is called the ontological argument. “Ontological” is a word which basically means “study of being”; thus, there are two ontolological categories—“being” and “non-being;” or “existence” and “non-existence” (there is a slight difference between these two pairs, but this is not important here). The argument itself runs like this: God is that than which nothing greater can be conceived (or thought). The greatest thing of which not only you, but anybody, can conceive is God. Now, existence is greater than non-existence, that is real and concrete existence outside of the mind is greater than existence in the mind. Therefore, God must exist. There may be some holes in this argument as such, and in turn some modifications of it—but the real point here is that God is not only the greatest thing or Being which does exist, but the greatest thing or Being which can exist. He is therefore necessarily perfect.
The second argument which I would like to mention is the Kalam cosmological argument. This argument is fairly simple: it has three steps. The first step is that everything which begins to exist must have a cause; second, the world—indeed the universe (cosmos)—began to exist, so third it must have a cause. That cause is God. This reveals two more things about God: that He caused the universe to come into existence—that is, that He is the Creator of the universe—and that moreover He is eternal (which is a part of His being perfect), meaning that He has always existed. Thus, we cannot say that there was a time when God did not exist.
The next argument is the argument from aesthetics. This is one which you either see or you don’t, as Professor Kreeft puts it: there is the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, therefore God exists. This is an argument from the existence of beauty, and there are corresponding arguments from truth and from goodness (morality). Essentially, these arguments mean that beauty, goodness, and truth must have some objective and transcendent source—and that source is not Mr Bach, despite using his music as an example of beauty which moves us outside of ourselves. Rather, truth, goodness, and beauty must all point back towards their Source, which is God. Let me say that again: God is not only the highest summit of beauty, goodness, and truth; He is also the source of all truth, goodness, and beauty. We might say that He is, for example, the highest, perfect, and complete Good.
The fourth argument is the argument from miracles. A miracle is essentially the suspension of the normal laws of nature; or, better yet, it is the deference of nature to supernature, of the natural to the supernatural. Ultimately, it means the subordination of creation to its Creator. This might be in the form of signs and wonders of miraculous cures as at Lourdes or of the miracles found in the Gospels; or it might be—and often is—something much less impressive on a physical scale, the “still small voice” which speaks to us in our hearts, the answering of a prayer. What I will say is that there are many miracles which have been documented and corroborated with eyewitnesses—including “hostile” eyewitnesses; and that although not every one of those eyewitnesses has had a conversion experience or even accepted it as a miracle (though they can think of no other explanation), there have also been some conversions which may be attested to the miraculous. I will also say that those who discount miracles in general (which does not mean any one particular miracle) must ultimately do so on the unsubstantiated and rather dogmatic conviction that the laws of nature cannot be suspended nor alter their course, to summarize the late Fr Stanley L Jaki. The importance of miracles to God is that He is not merely a cosmic watchmaker Who made the cosmos and then ignored it, or even Who sits back and merely observes it; but rather that He takes so much an interest in it that He Himself interacts with it directly at times, and has even entered it in Person.
My final way of knowing that God is exists is called the argument from contingency. This argument is possibly the toughest, but it is also one of my personal favorites. It states that there are two types of things which exists—those which are “contingent” and those which are not contingent but rather “necessary.” A thing or being is contingent if it does not necessarily exist. For example, there was a time before I was conceived when I did not exist, and there will be a time after I die when I do not exist in this world. However, my non-existence does not mean—contrary to the solipsists—that the world will all go away. I am therefore a contingent being. Moreover, the whole world could stop existing tomorrow, but the universe would continue (albeit with a much smaller number of inhabitants): the world is also contingent. Indeed, this same thing can be said about every single object in the universe. If Alpha Centauri were to vanish tomorrow, we wouldn’t know about it for a little over 4 years, and we would continue just fine not only until then, but also thereafter. The Andromeda Galaxy could have vanished a hundred thousand years ago, and we would be none-the-wiser right now.
However, all of these things must take their existence from something or Someone. They do not receive their existence from any other thing which may or may not exist, and certainly they cannot get this existence from themselves or from each other collectively. Rather, they are given existence from outside themselves, by That which must exist necessarily of Itself. That Source is God, Who alone must necessarily exist. This tells us that God’s essence is also His existence—a point which is sometimes called “divine simplicity.” God is simple, that is, He is not divisible into parts. He is His existence, but He is also His power, He is His Goodness, He is His Wisdom, etc. It tells us something else, which is that the act of creation was not a one-time thing, but something which is ongoing; God not only creates the world in the sense that an artist creates a painting, but in the sense that an orchestra creates a symphony. As soon as the orchestra stops, the symphony fades away and ceases to exist.
Here, then, are some ways which we can know that God exists. Each way sheds some light on Who He is, on His Nature and Essence as well as His Existence. He is Perfect, meaning that He is the greatest Being (or thing) of which we can conceive; nothing greater can be conceived, even in theory. He is perfectly simple so that their are no divisions within Him. Therefore, His essence is His existence, meaning that He is that which cannot not exist--or He is that which must exist if anything exists. He is Goodness, Truth, and Beauty, which means that all goodness, truth, and beauty is derived from Him. He is the Creator, not only in the sense of creating the universe at some time in the past, but also in the sense that He continues to create it now, so that it receives its continued existence from Him. Finally, He does at times intervene in the normal course of nature with His miracles, both the big ones and the small ones--meaning that He is not a distant and aloof Watchmaker, but rather makes Himself to be our Father.
Continue on to Part 2: "Who or What is God?"