by Michael J. Vlach, Ph.D.
Perhaps the hottest topic in all of philosophy concerns the existence of God. Thus the question—“Does God exist?”
Our answer to this question affects how we view the world, how we behave, and what we expect for the future.
If God exists, then we are probably accountable to this God. The universe may have meaning and purpose. Plus, our own existence may not cease at physical death. If God does not exist, however, then we are probably here by chance and are not accountable to some transcendent being. This life may be all we have, so live your life however you see fit and enjoy it.
Traditionally, there have been four major arguments for God’s existence: (1) the cosmological argument; (2) the teleological argument; (3) the ontological argument; and (4) the moral law argument. Below are explanations of each of the arguments and the common responses to them.
1. Cosmological Argument
The term “cosmological” comes from the Greek word “kosmos” which means “world.”
The cosmological argument for God’s existence goes like this: The world could not exist on its own so there must have been a first cause that brought it into being. This first cause is God. Or put another way, the universe could not just exist on its own—someone or something must have made it. This cause of the universe is God.
Three criticisms of the cosmological argument have been offered. First, some say matter is eternal and is not in need of a “first cause.” Second, some say “If everything needs a cause, what caused God?” Third, some say that even if it is true that some being caused our universe to exist, this does not prove the existence of the Christian God. All it shows is that there is some powerful being that created the universe, but this does not necessarily mean that this creator was the God of the Bible.
2. Teleological Argument
The teleological argument is also known as “the argument from design” (The Greek word “telos” means “purpose” or “design.”). The argument goes like this: The universe evidences great complexity or design; thus, it must have been designed by a great Designer or God.
The argument from design can be likened to a watch. A watch is obviously made by a watchmaker. The world, which is much more complex than a watch, must also have been designed by a great Designer or Divine Watchmaker (God).
In sum, the teleological argument asserts that the universe evidences too much complexity to be the product of random chance. We know that the celestial bodies move with perfect accuracy in their orbits. Our bodies, too, are incredibly complex. According to the teleological argument, there’s just no way all this complexity could “just happen.” God must have created it all.
There have been three responses to the teleological argument. First, some say the teleological argument is guilty of a “weak analogy” because it assumes a significant resemblance between natural objects (ex. rocks, trees) and objects we know have been designed (ex. watches, skyscrapers). Thus, comparing natural objects with objects we know have been created by humans is like comparing apples and oranges. The analogy just doesn’t work. Second, some say that the theories of the big bang and evolution better explain the complexity in the universe. Third, some say that even if the teleological argument is true, it does not prove the existence of the Christian God.
3. Ontological Argument
The third argument for God’s existence is the ontological argument. This argument is unlike the cosmological and teleological arguments in that it does not argue from evidence in the natural world. Thus, it is not a “cause and effect” argument.
The ontological argument can be stated in this way: “God is the greatest being imaginable. One of the aspects of perfection or greatness is existence. Thus, God exists.” Or put another way—“The fact that God can be conceived means that he must exist.”
This argument for God’s existence was developed by the twelfth century theologian and philosopher, Anselm. It is based on Anselm’s declaration that God is “that which nothing greater can be conceived.”
The ontological argument has been very controversial. Even many who believe in God’s existence question its validity. A contemporary of Anselm named Guanilo responded to Anselm. Guanilo said that one could imagine a perfect island but that did not mean a perfect island exists. Others have said you can imagine a unicorn but that does not mean unicorns exist. Thus, many challenge the idea that the idea of God must mean that God exists.
4. Moral Law Argument
Another argument for the existence of God is the moral law argument. It goes like this: Without God morality would be impossible. There must be a Lawgiver (God) who originates and stands by moral law. A universal moral law cannot exist accidentally. There must be a basis behind it—God.
According to this view, every person is born with an inherent understanding of right and wrong. Everyone, for instance, understands that killing an innocent person is wrong. Everyone understands that helping a drowning person is right. Where did this internal understanding of right and wrong come from? According to adherents of the moral law argument, this understanding comes from God. He put it into the hearts of every person.
There have been two responses to the moral law argument. First, some deny that there are universal truths. Many today believe that truth is subjective and relative. Societies and individuals determine what is true for them, but there is no God that does this. Second, some say that the presence of evil in the world argues against a Moral Lawgiver. If God is all-powerful and all-good, how can evil exist in the world?
The arguments and counterarguments for God’s existence remain controversial. The cosmological, teleological, and moral law arguments remain popular with Christian apologists today. The ontological argument is not as well received although some today still asserts its validity.
It should be noted that most Christian theologians and philosophers believe that God never intended for his existence to be something that could be proven with 100% certainty. They point out that faith is an important component in understanding God and his existence.