Descartes made his famous statement, “I think; therefore, I am,” to communicate what he held to be the most fundamental and irrefutable truth: his thought about whether or not he existed was proof that he did exist. He argued that everything else could be an illusion, but that this was the one principle that he could not deny. He would go on to argue that logically, the only way we can have any confidence that the things we believe to be true are true is to posit the existence of a good and all-powerful God, for without such a God, one could logically have no confidence that what he perceived was not part of a grand deception. In addition, combining elements of Anselm’s Ontological Argument and Aquinas’ Proof from Degrees, he posited that the idea of an all-powerful good God was inherently greater than that of an all-powerful demon, it must be that of an all-powerful God of good that we ought to expect to be in reality.
Whether one is compelled by Descartes’ logic or not, my purpose here is to raise the question about existence and non-existence in relationship to God’s creation. God, of course, is the one self-existent being that was necessary to bring into being all that is. Prior to God’s work of creation he existed in perfect blessedness and in perfect relationship within his Triune self. His creation was done not because of a need within him that had to be filled; his creation was done as a revelation of his glory and he created us to be in fellowship with him so that we might enjoy the fullness of his glory.
One of the key elements in medieval logic, that drove Anselm, Aquinas, and Descartes was the principle that existence is greater than non-existence. For most of us, that seems to be more or less a common sense position as a pound of meat in the hand of a hungry man is more valuable to him than the idea of a pound of meat. Yet, later on, there would be philosophers like Immanuel Kant who would challenge that notion, arguing that existence is not so much a quality of something that could be found cumulative with other qualities, thus making that which existed better than that which did not exist, but that existence simply was a reflection of an item’s state of being. It either does or it does not exist, with no value statement assigned either way.
Despite Kant’s insistence to the contrary, I would put forward that the medieval view that existence is greater than non-existence is closer to the Biblical standard. Certainly a God who does exist eternally and is self-existent beyond the created order is greater than one who exists only in our imaginations, for who then brought creation into being? The naturalist would argue that nature is self-existent and has always existed, but nature is un-thinking and un-reasoning and how could an unthinking and unreasoning entity produce such uniform design throughout the cosmos? From the smallest genome to the largest stellar body, complex design is evident and design demands a reasoning designer. Hence, there logically must be one who is self-existent and transcendent from nature from whom nature receives its design — once again returning us to the necessity of a self-existent God who is existent.
As we then reflect on the nature of this self-existent God, we must first note that the God of the Christian Bible is the only God that fits the description of being both transcendent and self-existent. The Hindu gods, for example, are part of the created order and are not considered to be self-existent. Similarly, one can say the same of the many spirits worshiped in various forms of shamanism and new-age philosophy. In each case, the gods are understood to exist within the natural order, not outside of it. The one potential exception to this would be Islam, which holds to a transcendent god, yet their god presents himself as a great deceiver, which of course would eliminate him from being a candidate for being absolutely “good.” Thus, as Descartes points out, without an absolutely good God, we can know nothing for sure — even the faithful Muslim will have to confess that he does not have any confidence as to whether he will go to heaven or enter into judgment. The Christian Bible would go further in its claim about a god who is a deceiver and clearly point out that he is the Devil (John 8:44) or serves the devil (2 John 7).
Thus, if the Christian God is the only candidate for a transcendent and self-existent God, we will use the Bible (God’s self-revelation) to be our rule for understanding the characteristics of this God — namely that he is not only all-powerful and self-existent, but that he is all-knowing. This attribute is essential to our discussion of existence and non-existence. For, when we state that God is all-knowing, that means that God can learn nothing — he knows and has always known from the beginning all that will ever take place. This is a position that even most Wesleyans and Calvinists can find agreement on. The Wesleyan would argue that God knows all things because he is outside of time and thus looks down upon the whole of time and observes the events of man from beginning to end, a view popularized by the philosopher Boethius. The Calvinist would argue that God knows all things because he has ordained them to take place, a view that is arguably more consistent with Paul’s use of terms like election and predestination in his epistles.
Thus, regardless of which side you may fall on the Reformed/Calvinistic vs. Wesleyan/Arminian debate, there is agreement that God knows all things within orthodox Christianity. God knows all things and in turn, can learn nothing. The implication of this is that before God entered into the act of creation, the idea of his creation and of all created history existed in his mind. Surely, were God to have thought like Kant, there would have been no need to create, for existence and non-existence are simply states of being, not qualities of value. Instead, God does not simply let the idea of a created order exist in his mind, but he chooses to create and bring into existence all that is known.
This raises an interesting thought. While there was nothing lacking within God to cause him to create, it may be suggested that there is something lacking in non-existence. The lack is not in a sinful way, for sin did not enter into the world until the fall and sin can certainly not abide in the presence of a holy God, but the principle that existence is better than non-existence implies that that which exists in reality is better than that which exists only in the mind. Thus, in creating, God redeems non-existence by bringing creation into being. In a very real sense, this makes the entire creation account a redemption story. God begins by redeeming non-existence by making it exist then continues by addressing the formlessness and void. God redeems the formlessness by giving it order in the first three days of creation and then redeems emptiness by filling it in the latter three days of creation. Existence to non-existence, order to disorder, and fullness to emptiness, God redeems each and makes them “good.”
St. Thomas Aquinas listed what he saw as five intellectual proofs of the existence of God—proofs that were dependent on reason and observation, not the revealed word of God.
Aquinas and the First Way:
Aquinas recognized that for motion to take place, there had to be something that interacts with it to cause it to move. For a ball to move, for example, it must be struck by another object, for example, the foot of a child kicking it. The ball has the potential to move, but that potential cannot reach its actuality until something else acts upon it. Aquinas argued then, that as the original object that was moved needed to have something act upon it to move, so too does the second object have something act upon it. The boy swings his leg, which moves his foot which in turn moves the ball. And the chain continues backwards from there. He also recognized that without a first mover, the chain of cause and effect must, by definition, go eternally back. Since that idea is absurd to the ordered mind and is not consistent with observable evidence, there must be a first mover upon which nothing is needed to act to cause him to move. This, in turn must be an infinite being outside of creation and hence is God.
While it is not my purpose to go into a detailed critique of these proofs, it is important to point out what Aquinas is doing. It is clear from the language that this is designed to be an intellectual argument for the existence of a god, but it does not point clearly to the existence of the Biblical God. This proof could just as easily be applied to Allah, Odin, or Jupiter. The point is simply to argue that it is impossible to rationally look at our world without seeing the reality of a creator God.
Aquinas and the Second Way:
The second approach that Aquinas mentioned is similar to the first, but focuses on cause and effect rather than on potential motion being converted into actual motion. Every effect must have a cause, if you eliminate the cause you eliminate the effect. Once again, since an infinite series of cause and effect is irrational, the principle posits that there must be an original cause that in itself does not need a cause: hence God. Again, this does not posit the God of the Bible, or even a good and benevolent God for that matter, it only posits that a God exists who is the cause of all things and who is the effect of nothing.
Aquinas and the Third Way:
The third approach deals with a question of being and not being. Aquinas argued that from observation, the things around him had the possibility of being (or existing) or not being. The chair that you are sitting on exists, but it has not always existed. There was a time when the chair was not. He went on to observe that for something to move from not being to being, that action had to be brought about by something that was being. In other words, for the chair we spoke of earlier to come into being, it had to be manufactured. To manufacture something you must “be.” Something that does not exist cannot make something come into existence, the idea of such is nonsensical. Thus, all things that exist must be brought about by that which exists. Just as in the question of causation, there must be a first being. Yet, if that first being exists, he must necessarily not have the possibility of not being. In other words, as non-existence cannot bring about existence, the first being necessarily has to have always existed. And this entity that necessarily exists and cannot not-exist, is God.
Aquinas and the Forth Way:
Aquinas points out that we recognize that there are degrees of things. Some things are better than others; some things are shorter or taller or colder or hotter, etc… than others. And thus we rate them as good, better, and best. Yet, for us to have the idea that one thing is better than another, we must have a standard by which all things are measured and that can never be exceeded. That standard, then, is God. Note that this is not the suggestion that we get the idea of goodness or hotness from God, but simply that there must always be something that is more good or more hot than that which we are viewing and since there is a gradation, there must always be a top to the gradation that can never be surpassed. Such a top or asymptote, by definition, requires an infinite being, hence it must be God.
Aquinas and the Fifth Way:
Fifthly, Aquinas points out that there are entities in creation that have no consciousness at all, yet still act in a regular fashion and in such a way that it is beneficial to their continued existence. Trees, for example, have no consciousness of their own to direct themselves, yet they will sink their roots deeply into the soil to collect water, they will spread their branches wide to collect light for their photo-synthetic leaves, and they will drop seeds by which they may propagate their kind. Aquinas observed that since they act with some sense of direction in terms of self-preservation, yet are unguided by their own consciousness, they must be guided by the consciousness of another. This, once again, is the role of God.