What does it mean to believe in God? For the Christian, belief in God is more than just believing that God exists. It starts there, but it’s much more than that: To believe in God is to choose to enter into relationship with the Creator, the only one who is able to inform our purpose and bring us to our ultimate destiny. Believing is directing one’s life to the Ultimate Source of all there is.
Basically, to believe in God is to believe God, for Christian faith is a response to God’s self-revelation. It’s not just the result of a drawn-out philosophical argument.
This kind of belief requires God’s initiative, since faith uplifts human nature and transforms us from the inside-out. We can’t forge a relationship with the Transcendent Cause of the Universe on our own. God makes the first move. It’s by God’s grace that we have authentic faith, then.
The existence of God
But let’s back up some. For if you’re going to make God central to your life, typically you do have to be convinced of God’s existence, in the first place. The question of God’s existence is a biggie, and it’s been the focus of some of history’s biggest thinkers, from Aristotle to Aquinas. Entire books have been written on the topic. This isn’t the place to develop all of the arguments for God’s existence, but it’s worth pointing out that there are several that have stood the test of time. Note that these arguments are not religious ones. They don’t assume anything about Jesus, the Bible, or any religion for that matter. They are instead philosophical and therefore accessible to anyone with the ability to reason about the world of our experience.
Many such arguments start by examining some aspect of reality that cannot itself account for its own existence and, upon further reflection, conclude that there must also exist a reality that is self-explanatory—something whose nature is simply to exist—and is the ultimate cause of all else that exists. With the use of careful reasoning, these arguments go on to identify this ultimate reality with the characteristics of what can only be called God: utterly unique, one, simple, and infinite.
Take the argument from contingency. We start by noticing that various realities in our experience are contingent: That is, they cannot explain their own existence. Instead, they depend on other realities for their existence in the here and now.
Consider yourself. It’s quite obvious that you are contingent, for you very well could have not existed. If the course of history didn’t unfold the way it did—if your parents had never met—you never would’ve been born. But there’s more to it than that. For even now, your existence depends on other realities: on organs and cells, on molecules and atoms, on subatomic particles, physical laws, quantum mechanics, and so forth.
Now the question arises: are you only dependent on other contingent realities? In other words, does your existence only depend on other things that also cannot explain their own existence? If so, that would mean that your existence is dependent on other things that are also dependent on other things that are, in turn, also dependent on other things, and so on. But that can’t be, for then the conditions of your existence could never be fulfilled (and yet here you are!). No, there must exist at least some reality that is not contingent: It’s existence must not depend on some other reality but instead must simply exist by its own nature.
If you think about, it’s actually pretty obvious. So at this point, it’s worth noting that the argument isn’t really whether or not something exists necessarily, but rather what the nature of this necessarily-existing thing is. After all, many atheists will suggest that some physical reality, even the Universe itself, is self-explaining and eternal. (But we will go on to see how this can’t be.)
Ultimate Reality just is
So let’s get to know a little bit more about non-contingent reality. Non-contingent reality does not receive its existence from anything else. It’s not dependent on something else for its be-ing. Put another way, the Ultimate Source of all things just IS. It exists necessarily. Whereas the things of our everyday experience have the potential to exist, or the potential to become this or do that, Ultimate Reality cannot have potential of any kind. It’s fully actual. For if Ultimate Reality had potential, then that would mean something else would have to actualize this potential. But then it could not really be the Ultimate Source of existence after all, considering it would be dependent on something else! It would be contingent—just another thing whose existence depends on something else.
According to classical theism, God is being or existence. The great thirteenth-century theologian Thomas Aquinas described God as ipsum esse subsistens, or the act of “to be” itself. This is confirmed in the Old Testament story of the burning bush, when God reveals his name to Moses as “I am who I am” (Ex. 3:14). God just is. In God, there is no difference between what God is and that God is. God is the pure act of existence itself. Interesting how religious faith—in this case, the Judaeo-Christian tradition—meets and confirms philosophical reasoning so far.
There’s only one Ultimate Source of existence
We know that for any contingent reality to exist at all, there must also exist some non-contingent reality. At least one. But can there be more than one non-contingent, ultimate reality? Pretend there are two. If so, then there must be some distinguishing feature between the two (or else they would be the same thing). Whether the difference is in matter, location, time, power, thought, or whatever other difference there may be, there would have to be some distinctive feature between them.
Now, if there were some distinguishing feature, then such a reality would be contingent on something external to itself in order to explain its distinctive element. After all, since these two alleged non-contingent realities supposedly share a common nature (of being non-contingent realities), there must be some external cause that “combines” the common nature with the distinguishing feature.
But if this were so, then the alleged non-contingent reality would NOT be non-contingent at all, since its existence depends on something external to it! Therefore, there can only be one Ultimate, Non-Contingent Reality. And since there must exist non-contingent reality for anything else to exist at all, then there does, in fact, exist one and only one non-contingent reality.
Is Ultimate Reality God?
The Ultimate, Non-Contingent Reality is starting to sound more and more like God: It’s the source of existence, and there’s only one. We’ve come a long way, but we still seem to be in vague territory. What is Ultimate Reality like? What’s the “stuff” of Ultimate Reality? This latter question assumes that Ultimate Reality is akin to something material. But can that be so with Ultimate Reality?
Material realities are composites of things. They have parts. This is obvious with our everyday experience: our bodies are made up of organs, which are made up of tissues and cells, which are made up of molecules and atoms, and so on. But this is also the case with things that don’t have physical parts as such. In fact, all realities that exist, except for the Ultimate, Non-Contingent Reality, are composites of the most fundamental “parts”: essence and existence, or what a thing is and that a thing is. (As discussed above, Ultimate Reality is the only exception, since it is the only reality whose nature is existence itself).
Now any composite exists insofar as its parts are so arranged. This is not just true in a temporal sense (for example, a carpenter arranging wood into a table). This is the case at any given moment (a table depends on several external factors to currently exist as it does—gravity, air pressure, temperature, arrangement of atoms, and so on). So any composite has a cause of its existence. This cause cannot be the composite itself, for that would be circular and nonsensical: A chair does not make itself into a chair, for example.
But the Ultimate, Non-Contingent Reality cannot have a cause of its existence. It is existence itself and the ultimate cause of all else that exists. Therefore, Ultimate Reality is not a composite. It does not have parts in any sense. Ultimate Reality is entirely simple. What this means is hard to imagine, but we can know it must be so.
Ultimate Reality is not physical
If Ultimate Reality doesn’t have parts, then it’s not material. Given the above argument, it’s not even physical-like (whatever that may mean), since Ultimate Reality cannot have parts of any sort—no distinctions, no different aspects. This is the attribute known as simplicity.
Another way of demonstrating this is to remember what was said regarding potentiality and actuality. Ultimate Reality is fully actual whereas everything else is only potential until becoming actualized. Ultimate Reality cannot have any potential. If it did, then its existence would be contingent on something else, and it would consequently not be the Ultimate, Non-Contingent Reality. Now physical realities are not fully actual. They are in a state of becoming, of changing. They are mixes of potentiality and actuality. They exist in this manner at this time and this place, and in this way at this time and this place.
So no physical reality can be the Ultimate, Non-Contingent Reality. No atom, no particle, no field, no collection of physical realities. Not even the Universe or (hypothetical) Multiverse.
Ultimate Reality is Unrestricted Spirit
To say that the Non-Contingent, Ultimate Reality and Source of all things is not made of parts, is not physical, but is instead purely simple is to say that Ultimate Reality is transphysical and not restricted to spatial or temporal ways of existing. It is not exist in space or time and is not limited by them.
Ultimate Reality is infinite, then, in the sense of being unrestricted. It is not infinite in the sense of taking up a never-ending amount of space or time, for it is neither in space nor in time. It is impossible to imagine what Ultimate Reality is like, then, since our experience and imagination is limited to space and time. Still, we can know it must be so that the Ultimate Source of all there is is, in fact, unrestricted and outside of space and time.
Science and God
Science cannot prove God, since science only deals with physical realities. But as shown above, God is in no way physical. So if anyone claims that science has disproven God, they either have an inadequate definition of God or an inadequate definition of science. Science can support God, though, by providing evidence for a philosophical proposition. If “something that begins to exist has a cause” is taken as a metaphysical statement, and if the Universe or all of physical reality can be shown from science to have begun to exist, then we have scientific confirmation that there must exist some reality that caused the Universe and all of physical reality to exist. And if this reality is the cause of all physical reality, then this reality must be transphysical.
And indeed, modern scientific evidence suggests a beginning not only of our Universe or any hypothetical Multiverse, but of all physical reality itself. (However, it must be noted that even if the Universe didn’t have a beginning in time, that would not dispense with the above argument from contingency, which is based on the existence of realities in the here and now and not just over time).
Christians getting God wrong
Everything I have written so far coincides with classical Christian theism, as testified by theologians throughout the church’s history, and as professed by major Christian traditions like Catholicism. However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t Christian groups and individuals who have a distorted view of God, which sometimes becomes the object of mockery by unbelievers.
As this post expresses (and as classical theism and official Christian teaching reveal), God is not an old man with a beard. Aside from the Incarnation of Jesus, God doesn’t have a body. There are some Christian groups who do believe God is a body: Mormons do believe that God has a body, for example. But that’s not the mainstream or historic understanding.
Atheists getting God wrong
Some of the more popular atheists—who, sadly, also happen to be the more influential and aggressive ones—think of God as just another hypothesis, on par with scientific theories and empirical evidence. To them, God is a postulated cause competing with other various causes that can be observed, measured, and predicted in the Universe. This so-called “god of the gaps,” they argue, is used by Christians to attribute those things not yet explained by science. As our knowledge of thunder has since supplanted Zeus, so has science steadily undermined God.
Unfortunately, this understanding of God is not absent from Christian circles. This is especially obvious with creationists, those who adhere to a literal account of the Genesis creation story. They often wrongly infer that the complexity and diversity of life is tantamount to “intelligent design” and therefore suggestive of a divine creator. Non-believers rightly criticize this perspective, for there can always be a natural explanation for something within the Universe. The important thing to note, however, is that the traditional Christian approach would agree with the atheist on this point.
God is not the answer to some unexplained physical phenomenon. No event or condition automatically indicates divine intervention just because it is not (currently) explained by science. Historic Christianity professes a God who works through secondary causes. While being the ultimate cause of all things, God allows things to operate according to their natural properties and processes. But when Christians perpetuate such a false notion of God, atheists will be quick to criticize it as unscientific—and rightly so. Still, it must be stressed that these atheists are criticizing a parody of God.
God is not just a “god of the gaps,” for God is not appealed to in order to explain gaps in our scientific understandings. Rather, God is the ultimate ground of reality, or the unconditioned act of existence from which everything else proceeds.