(Note: this is the fifth post in a series on the existence of God. Since it builds on the previous posts, please carefully read them before you read this one:
- Proving God Exists
- The Necessary Being
- What Is the Necessary Being?
- Pure Actuality (or Why the “Flying Spaghetti Monster” Isn’t God)
I have been making the case for God’s existence in two major moves. The first move was to show that the only way to ultimately account for contingent realities (those things that rely on something else to exist) is by the existence of some necessary reality (something that does not rely on anything else to exist). That was part one – and in my opinion, it’s the easy part!
The second major move is to identify what this necessary being or reality is. And this isn’t really difficult to do; it just takes some patient and careful reflection. So far, we have deduced the following:
- It must be eternal, since – as a necessary being rather than a contingent being – it doesn’t rely on anything else to come into existence or to remain in existence. It just is.
- It must be immaterial, since anything that is made up of parts is contingent (it depends on those parts to exist, and it depends on something to assemble the parts). It isn’t anything physical, in other words.
- It must be immutable, since – as a necessary being – it does not rely on something else to “actualize” its potentials (a fancy word for “change it”). It is purely or fully actual.
Obviously, whatever this necessary being is, it is much different than us or anything else we encounter in the reality of time, space, and matter. Then again, we would expect that the ultimate foundation of all reality would be pretty special! And that leads me to one more attribute of this necessary being…
It must be unique.
One and Only One
There can only be one truly necessary being. Why do I say this? Well, let me illustrate the point before I explain it. Just yesterday one of the guys at church sent me a picture he took last year that shows me and one of his sons wearing almost the same thing at our morning worship service. Here it is:
Virtually twins, right?! Well, one of us is just a little bigger and just a little older. And if you knew us, you would know that Reagan was a great athlete in school, and I was not. You can tell the difference between the two of us by our appearance, our age, and our abilities.
Now, let’s think about the concept of a necessary being. If there were two “necessary beings,” how could you distinguish them? Could you tell them apart by their appearance, or by their age, or by the abilities? Obviously not, since to be necessary in the first place is to be eternal, immaterial, and immutable. So, the two necessary beings could not be distinguished by age – something that is eternal doesn’t have an age. And they could not be distinguished by appearance – something that is immaterial doesn’t have a physical appearance. And they could not be distinguished by different abilities – something that is immutable (or purely active) doesn’t have unrealized potentials.
Do you see now why there could not be two different “necessary” beings? There would be no way to distinguish them. And that is not because we lack the right conceptual tools or because we don’t know the proper questions to ask; it is because of the very nature of what it is to be necessary.
The “I AM”
Let me expand on this point. So far we have talked about two categories of being, contingent and necessary. There is another category – the imaginary. To illustrate, think of your favorite super-hero (mine is Spider-Man). I can tell you lots of details about Spider-Man – things like his name (Peter Parker), his abilities (spider-like strength and agility), his sweetheart (Mary-Jane). I can tell you all sorts of things about what Spider-Man is, even though he is purely imaginary.
Here is the key point to take from this: what something is and whether something exists are two different questions. We can speak of Spider-Man’s essential features (the essence of what it is to be Spider-Man), while distinguishing that from his existence (which in the case of Spider-Man isn’t real). This same distinction between essence and existence also applies to me and to all other contingent things. I have an essence (I am a human being), and I have existence (I am alive). But – notice carefully – it isn’t necessary for my essence and my existence to be combined. It wasn’t necessary that I begin to exist, and it isn’t necessary that I continue to exist. The same is true with all other contingent things. What they are is a different matter from whether they are.
If something is contingent, it is something in which essence and existence are distinct and must be combined by something else. In part, I required parents for my essence and my existence to be joined together. But of course, they also relied on their parents to do the same for them, and so on, and so on. How could this chain of beings that are dependent on the union of essence and existence find an ultimate explanation? This chain can only be anchored in that which ultimately does not require something to combine its essence with existence, but something whose essence simply is existence.
This is what it means to be the necessary being. It is to be utterly unreliant on anything else to exist. Unlike contingent things in which essence and existence are distinct and in need of combining, that which is necessary just is existence itself. If it had a name, it might simply be called, “I AM” (Exodus 3:14).
And there can only be one such “I AM.” Otherwise, to distinguish one necessary being from another, there would have to be some aspect of what one of them is that is not true of the other (more powerful, more intelligent, more beautiful, etc). Its essence would be existence PLUS this or that distinguishing feature. And if that was the case, it essence wouldn’t simply be existence. Its essence would be distinct from its existence, and we would need a further explanation of how its essence and existence were combined – in other words, it would be contingent.
So this is why the necessary being is truly unique. Its solitary status as that in which essence and existence are identical makes it exclusively the sort of being that it is. There cannot be multiple “necessary beings.”
“One Less God”?
If you grasp this point, then you can see why one popular atheist argument simply misfires. The argument goes something like this. Through the centuries, religious people have believed in hundreds, maybe thousands of various different gods, like Baal or Zeus or Thor. Christians reject all of these gods but one. Well (the argument goes), atheists simply believe in one less god than Christians do. As Rickey Gervais said in his appearance on Steven Colbert’s show, “You don’t believe in 2,999 gods. And I don’t believe in just one more.”
The problem with this argument is that it assumes that all of these “gods” reflect the same basic concept as the Christian view of God. But that is obviously not the case at all. Gods like Baal or Zeus or Thor were never conceived of as “necessary” in the sense that we have been discussing. In the mythologies in which these gods were situated, such gods were not thought of as the ultimate ground of all reality. Indeed, the myths connected with them were explicit that these gods had a beginning, that they depended on some deeper source of being for their existence. And in most cases they were explicitly material beings, subject to change and even to death.
Thus it is a huge mistake to equate the various gods of pagan pantheons with the conception of God held by Christians (and Jews and Muslims). Yet this argument has become a staple of atheist rhetoric. In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins says:
I have found it an amusing strategy, when asked whether I am an atheist, to point out that the questioner is also an atheist when considering Zeus, Apollo, Amon Ra, Mithras, Baal, Thor, Wotan, the Golden Calf and the Flying Spaghetti Monster. I just go one god further. (p. 77)
The fact that so many atheists think the God of Christianity is the same sort of being as Zeus, Thor, and the Flying Spaghetti Monster simply shows that many atheists have virtually no idea of what the Christian claim about God’s existence even means. What Christians believe is that – as the necessary source of all reality – God is eternal, immaterial, purely actual, and unique. If atheists wish to truly engage the argument, they should at least bother to understand the terms of the debate.
To be fair, I have not yet shown that this necessary being is God in the ultimate Christian sense. For that matter, based purely on what we’ve deduced so far, the necessary being could be “The Force” from Star Wars! How do we know that this necessary being is personal? On what basis should we think it has something like intelligence, or will, or love? That’s what we will look at in the next post.
But if you think about the ground we have covered so far, we’ve made a lot of progress. After all, from the simple observation that contingent things exist, we have drawn out lots of implications. Something necessary exists, and whatever this is, it is timeless, it is part-less, it is changeless, and it is matchless. Not bad for a few weeks’ work!