It happened about two weeks ago. My youngest daughter asked one of those questions. It wasn’t about a complex moral issue or a violent act she saw on the news. It wasn’t even the dreaded “Where do babies come from?” This time, it was theological. Out of the blue, she asked: “When was God born? Who were his parents?”
I was quick on my feet: “Well, we celebrate his birth every Christmas. You already know the story, don’t you?”
My daughter shot back: “No, not Jesus. I’m talking about God. Where did God come from? Who created God?”
She had me. The Jesus–God switch hadn’t worked. I could try it again, but then I would have to attempt to explain the Trinity to a six-year-old. I’m not sure I can explain the Trinity to a forty-six-year-old. So, there I sat, driving a minivan full of kids, all waiting for my answer to one of the greatest philosophical questions that has ever been asked: If there really is a God who created everything in the world, then who created God?
The Problem of Turtles
We cannot answer this question with any certainty. But there are a few possibilities. One conceivable answer is that someone or something else created God. However, this raises questions about what it means to be God, with a capital G, in the first place.1 If something else existed before God and in turn created him, then God isn’t really God any more.
Part of his job description—at least, in the way we conceive him—is to be the all-powerful, eternal, preeminent Creator. But if something or someone else created God, this means: 1) there was a time when God did not exist and 2) there is a being more powerful and preeminent than him. Then he’s no longer God.
But there’s an even greater problem. If the answer to “Who created God?” is, “A giant rabbit did,” then the new question becomes, “Who created the giant rabbit?” If the answer is “A burst of energy did,” then the question becomes, “What caused the burst of energy?” If the answer is “a chemical reaction” or “a biological process” or “an astrophysical phenomenon,” then the question becomes, “What caused these?” On and on the problem goes.
William James, an American philosopher, once gave a lecture on cosmology. Afterward, “a little old lady” said that his theory about the solar system was wrong. Instead, she asserted, “We live on a crust of earth which is on the back of a giant turtle.”
James responded, “What does this turtle stand on?”
“You’re a very clever man, Mr. James,” she replied, “but the first turtle stands on the back of a second, larger turtle.”
“But what does this second turtle stand on?” persisted James.
The little old lady crowed triumphantly, “It’s no use, Mr. James—it’s turtles all the way down.”2
The Crux of the Issue
It’s a silly story (and most likely fictional). Yet it demonstrates the depth of the problem. The question cannot be answered by simply asserting that something or someone else created God. Granted, many think this whole discussion underscores the absurdity of believing in God to begin with. So another possible solution is to suggest that our ideas about God are fantasies, and religion is just a human construction and coping mechanism.3
But remove the idea of God and the problem does not just go away. The crux of the issue is still there in these kinds of questions:
- When and how did the universe begin?
- Who or what created the universe?
- What caused the Big Bang?
- What existed before the Big Bang?
- How did time and space begin?
These are extraordinarily complex questions that scientists and philosophers have debated for thousands of years.4 And contending that God doesn’t exist does not eliminate the problem of infinite regression. We’re still left attempting to determine the preceding cause of every historical event going backward in time, infinitely.
In light of these questions, one of the most helpful solutions is found in returning to the idea of what it means to be God.
Necessary and Contingent
Humans are contingent beings. Our existence is dependent on external factors or other beings. We require air to breathe; food and water to be nourished; and, in many cases, companionship or purpose to have meaningful life.
As infants, we required caretakers; if left by ourselves none of us would have survived. Most foundationally, our existence is entirely contingent on our parents. None of us would exist were it not for the existence of other beings.
But does the chain of contingency go infinitely backward? If every being in the universe was created by and dependent upon the preexistence of another being (or beings), then how do we explain how we got here? Is it contingent beings all the way back, like “turtles all the way down”?
We know this infinite regression does not work logically. If time and causation stretch backward into infinity, we would never have arrived at the current moment.5
The best explanation is that, somewhere along the way, there is a being that is not contingent. This being is necessary. To be necessary means that one’s existence is not dependent upon anything else. In other words, this being is self-caused and self-existent. This being is often considered God.6
Even J. L. Mackie, a preeminent atheist philosopher, acknowledges that the idea of a necessary being provides a robust answer for the difficult question before us:
Each thing in the world is contingent. . . . The world as a whole, being a collection of such things, is therefore itself contingent. . . . There must be a sufficient reason for the world which is other than the world. This will have to be a necessary being, which contains its own sufficient reason for existence. Briefly, things must have a sufficient reason for their existence, and this must be found ultimately in a necessary being. There must be something free from the disease of contingency, a disease which affects everything in the world and the world as a whole, even if it is infinite in past time.7
We Are His Offspring
This understanding sees God as the origin of life and existence itself. God was not created; he is the source of all creation. Whether this is the same God described in the Bible, Qur’an, or any other sacred scripture is another discussion. But at least one early Jewish Christian thought so. The Apostle Paul believed that theologians, philosophers, and artists could arrive at the same answer about God the Creator. He once told a crowd of Greek listeners:
The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. . . . "For in him we live and move and have our being." As some of your own poets have said, "We are his offspring."8
For Paul, God was not a distant Creator, but our Creator.
- Some religions have posited the existence of many gods, whose powers are limited and whose existences are not eternal. Following popular custom, these gods are described as “lowercase g” gods. Many people in the world believe in the idea of a preeminent being who is eternal and all-powerful over all other gods, beings, creation, and existence. Though different people use different names to describe this being, the word “God” is used in this article for the sake of convenience.
- This is one version of the story, which may be apocryphal. Stephen Hawking begins his popular work A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes with another version. See Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes (New York: Bantam Books, 1988), 1.
- Sigmund Freud famously put forward this view of religion in The Future of an Illusion (New York: Norton, 1961). The book was originally published in 1927.
- Recent attempts at answering these questions include Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design (New York: Bantam Books, 2010); Max Tegmark, Our Mathematical Universe: My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality (New York: Knopf, 2014); Simon Singh, Big Bang: The Origin of the Universe (New York: HarperCollins, 2004); Lloyd Geering, From the Big Bang to God (Salem, OR: Polebridge Press, 2013).
- This idea is known as the Kalam Argument. See the discussion from a Christian philosopher’s viewpoint in J. P. Moreland, Scaling the Secular City: A Defense of Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1987), 18–42.
- One brilliant Enlightenment mathematician and philosopher to first popularize this argument about God as a necessary being was Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. See “Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, last modified July 24, 2013, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/leibniz/#ExiGod.
- J. L. Mackie, The Miracle of Theism: Arguments For and Against the Existence of God (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982), 82.
- The Holy Bible, New International Version © 2011, Acts 17:24–25, 28. In these verses, Paul actually quotes well-known and respected non-Christian philosophers.
- Photo Credit: Marcel Ter Bekke / Stocksy.com.