Some years ago, our family drove up to visit the Grand Canyon. As we approached the rim, we stopped as a sense of overwhelming wonder gripped each of us. Surrounding us were throngs of people from around the world who had traveled to stand in front of something that made them feel small and awestruck in the presence of something glorious that was much bigger than us that stood before we were born and would continue long after we were gone. At this moment, it dawned on me that everyone who visits the Grand Canyon is ultimately looking for God, whether they know it or not. The same is true for everyone who stops to feel the sun or a breeze on their face, looks up at a sunset, or hikes into the mountains for the good of their soul. When we feel in the presence of something that makes us feel small and in awe we begin to experience the wonder of worship.
Christian philosophers have long sought to start with creation to move backwards to introduce people to the Creator. Among the most popular are the arguments from the highest ideal (ontological argument), intelligent design (teleological argument), first cause (cosmological argument), time (Kalam argument), and morality (axiological argument). Each of these arguments is complex and can be presented in multiple ways. Generally speaking, these philosophical arguments are each inductive in form, meaning they reason from what God has done to an understanding of who God is. The one exception is the ontological argument, which is a deductive argument. To help you consider the merits of these arguments, we will summarize each briefly.
Ontological Argument from Highest Ideal
The philosopher Anselm of Canterbury first formulated the argument from the highest ideal, also called the ontological argument (ontos means “being”). The ontological argument seeks to prove the existence of God by reasoning that human beings, regardless of their culture or period in history, continually conceive of a perfect being that is greater than they are—so great that no greater being can be conceived of. This perfect being is God. The argument follows that since the human mind is only able to conceive of that which actually exists, God must exist because we would not be able to conceive of God unless there was God. Likewise, everything else that we conceive of, from automobiles to the color blue, does exist. Therefore, our idea about this perfect, highest being called God is derived from the actual existence of this God. This argument is rooted in Exodus 3:14, where God reveals Himself to Moses as “I am who I am.”
Historically, this argument for the existence of God has been highly controversial. Its defenders include René Descartes and Benedict Spinoza. Its critics include Christian Thomas Aquinas and atheist David Hume. While not without merit, this argument’s complexity and controversy make it perhaps not the most compelling argument for God’s existence in comparison to the inductive arguments that we will now explore.
Teleological Argument from Design
The teleological argument (telos means “purpose” or “design”) seeks to convince from the amazing harmony in all of creation that the world has been ordered by an Intelligent Designer who is God. In its simple form, the argument contends that when we see something that is designed, we rightly assume that an intelligent designer created it. Further, the more complicated something is, the more intelligent the designer must have been.
Classic advocates of the teleological argument from design include Christian philosophers Thomas Aquinas and William Paley. Paley’s watchmaker analogy stated that if you came across something as complex as a watch, you would rightly assume that an intelligent designer made it. Likewise, as we walk through the world, we continually encounter things made with far greater complexity than a watch, such as the eye you are using to read these words. Biochemistry professor Michael Behe made similar points in his argument for “irreducible complexity”: that certain biological systems, like an eye, are too complex to have evolved from simpler predecessors. [ENDNOTE #1] They had to come into existence as complete systems. Therefore, we are logically compelled to believe that these things were intelligently designed by God.
The teleological argument is found Psalm 19:1: “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” and Romans 1:20: “[God’s] invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.”
Regarding our bodies, Psalm 139:13–14 says, “For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works…” Further findings in science continually increase our understanding of the wondrous complexity of our body, including the fact that just one human DNA molecule holds roughly the same amount of information as one volume of an encyclopedia.
God himself even used teleological reasoning. Beginning in Job 38, God peppers Job with sixty-four questions about the design of creation, including: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding.” As an aside, God’s questioning of Job was God seeking in love to bring Job to the understanding that, just as God had a purposeful design for His creation, so too He had a purposeful design in mind for Job’s suffering.
In recent decades, the “fine-tuning argument” has also gained prominence as a form of the teleological argument. Proponents note that these basic physical constants must fall within very narrow limits if intelligent life is to develop. For example, our world’s constant gravitational force, the rate of universe expansion, the average distance between stars, the nature of gravity, earth’s distance from the sun, earth’s rotation period, and even our carbon dioxide levels are so finely tuned for life on our planet that no logical explanation other than God is tenable. Collins says:
“When you look from the perspective of a scientist at the universe, it looks as if it knew we humans were coming. There are 15 constants—the gravitational constant, various constants about the strong and weak nuclear forces, etc.—that have precise values. If any one of those constants was off by even one part in a million, or in some cases, by one part in a million million, the universe could not have actually come to the point where we see it. Matter would not have been able to coalesce, there would have been no galaxy, stars, planets, or people.” [ENDNOTE #2]
Even our own human bodies support this argument. Further findings in science continually increase our understanding of the wondrous complexity of the human body, including the fact that just one human DNA molecule holds roughly the same amount of information as one volume of an encyclopedia.
Cosmological Argument from First Cause
The cosmological argument comes from the word cosmos, which means “orderly arrangement.” The word was purportedly first used to explain the universe by the sixth-century-BC Greek philosopher Pythagoras. The argument from first cause asserts that for every effect there is a cause. (This is referred to formally as the law of causality.) Therefore, the material world must have a beginning, and that beginning must be outside of the material world to cause it to come into existence. The first cause, also called the uncaused cause, is God. On this point, the astronomer Fred Hoyle claimed that “the probability of life arising on earth (by purely natural means, without special divine aid) is less than the probability that a flight-worthy Boeing 747 should be assembled by a hurricane roaring through a junkyard.” [ENDNOTE #3]
Throughout history this argument has been popular with many non-Christian thinkers such as Plato, Aristotle, the Muslim philosopher Al-Farabi, and Jewish thinker Moses Maimonides. Noteworthy Christians advocating the cosmological argument include Augustine, Anselm, Descartes, and Aquinas. They have reasoned that, in addition to the material world, immaterial things such as emotions and intelligence are simply not possible apart from a God who created the world in general and humans in particular. Simply, the cause of our emotions and thoughts cannot be emotionless and unintelligent matter. Therefore, we must have been created by an emotional and intelligent God, which explains our feelings and thoughts.
The cosmological argument for creation from a first cause is rooted throughout Scripture. The biblical creation story tells us that an eternal, necessary first cause (God) created the universe and all that is in it. God is eternal and independent, and is therefore separate and apart from His dependent creation as the necessary first cause. [FOOTNOTE: Ps. 90:2]. The first two chapters of Genesis report that God eternally existed before any aspect of creation and that God alone is the Creator and Cause of our world.
In explaining how God is the cause of creation, it is common to hear the phrase ex nihilo. Ex nihilo is Latin for “out of nothing” and is commonly used to explain how God made creation out of nothing. Hebrews 11:3 says, “By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.”
Opponents of this argument have sought to negate its claims by offering alternatives to the concept that the world had a cause and a beginning. For example, solipsists suggest that the world is simply an illusion. Nevertheless, they hypocritically look both ways before crossing a busy street. Some have argued that the world is self-created, which seems as illogical as coming home to find a new smart phone already connected to all of your accounts and believing that it created itself, downloaded it’s software, and connected itself to the internet. Others have reasoned that the material world came from nothing and was made by nothing, which also seems illogical because no-thing cannot create a-thing. Believing that matter and energy sprang from nothing requires a leap of faith more giant than believing that creation is the work of God.
Finally, others have opposed the argument from first cause by suggesting that the universe is eternal. Most scientists believe that the universe is winding down to an eventual end based upon the Second Law of Thermodynamics and the Big Bang Theory, which state that it likewise had a beginning. This leads us to the argument from time, which we will examine next. As a curious historical footnote, even the great father of evolution, Charles Darwin, was clear in “On the Origin of Species” that he remained convinced that God existed in agreement with the cosmological argument.
Kalam Argument from Time
The basic Kalam argument is that the existence of time necessitates a beginning as a reference point from which time proceeds. This reference point would have to be outside of time to begin time, and that eternal reference point is God, who is outside of time but initiated time. To put it another way, the universe is not eternal and therefore must have a beginning. Behind that beginning must be a cause that is eternal, or apart from time. Therefore, the cause of time and creation is God.
This argument relies heavily on the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which affirms that the universe is running out of usable energy and is therefore winding down to an end. Practically, this means that since the universe will have an end, it is not eternal and must have also had a beginning. Also used in support of this argument is Big Bang cosmology, which states that the universe had a beginning and has been expanding ever since and is therefore not eternal.
The argument from time was formulated by Muslim philosophers such as Al-Farabi and Al-Ghazali and is now popular among Muslims, Jews, Protestants, and Catholics who teach that the existence of time is evidence for God.The argument does have merits and is helpful, but it does not prove that God is personal or intelligent. Neither does it determine the nature of God as deistic, pantheistic, or monotheistic. Therefore, by itself the Kalam argument can help us believe in a god but cannot clearly articulate any specific information about the nature of God.
Axiological Argument from Morality
The axiological argument takes its title from the word axios, which means “judgment.” The argument from morality contends that everyone, regardless of his or her culture, has an innate understanding of right and wrong. Simply, all sane people know that such things as rape and murder are wrong.
But where do these universal morals that exist in each of us come from? God has made us with a conscience that helps us navigate through life as responsible moral beings, though we often ignore the conscience He has given us. When we argue that the way something is is not the way it “ought” to be, the moral argument proponents would say we are not merely appealing to law, but ultimately to God who is the giver of the moral law implanted in our consciences. Speaking of non-Christians, Romans 2:15 says, “the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them.” Simply, when we feel bad about what we have done or what someone else has done, we are bearing witness that God is the Lawgiver and has put an understanding of His law in our conscience.
The axiological argument was formalized by the philosopher Immanuel Kant and used by the great Christian thinker C. S. Lewis. Lewis insightfully noted that when we have been sinned against, we often appeal to the universal laws that define right and wrong, assuming that there is an authority above the person who acted unjustly toward us. We also anticipate that somehow everyone else will agree with our understanding of right and wrong because we know that they have a conscience in them, which explains why we appeal to it.
One of the beautiful results of the moral law is that it permits us to have a righteous anger. Because there is both a Lawgiver and Law, we are able to rise above the incessant postmodern pluralism that says that there is no Law but only cultural perspective on morality. Because the axiological argument is true, we do not have to accept evil atrocities and injustices committed in culture; instead, as human beings we can appeal to the higher authority of God the Lawgiver who sits over all cultures in authority. This explains, for example, why Nazi Germany was stopped for violating God’s unchanging laws regarding human dignity and not merely accepted as a law unto itself. Curiously, at the Nuremberg trials, one of the more common appeals by those on trial was that there was no Lawgiver or Law, and that they were simply obeying the law of their nation. In response, the axiological argument was given because human beings were made with a sense of right and wrong by a moral God who is our Lawgiver. Other glorious examples of the practical outworking of the axiological law are Abraham Lincoln’s and William Wilberforce’s battles against slavery, as well as Martin Luther King Jr.’s fight for civil rights from religious convictions.
In conclusion, taken together as a cumulative case, the various arguments for God’s existence reveal that God exists; He is the Intelligent Designer, the powerful Cause of all creation, apart from time but at work in time, and morally good.
- See Michael J. Behe, Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution (New York: Free Press, 2006).
- Steve Paulson, “The Believer” (interview with Francis Collins), com, 3, http://salon.com/books/int/2006/08/07/collins/index2.html.
- Fred Hoyle, quoted in Alvin Plantinga, “The Dawkins Confusion,” Books & Culture 13, no. 2 (March/ April 2007): 21, http://www.christianitytoday.com/bc/2007/002/1.21.html.