Often the classics rank among the best. Even though time passes and intellectual fashions change, certain insights and perspectives address something so profound they forever earn a place as a steadfast pillar among sifting seas of opinion. Much of what comes after such a point simply serves as either confirmation, renunciation, clarification, or criticism. Though he lived and labored during the Middle Ages in the 1200‘s, the cosmological argument of Thomas Aquinas has withstood the test of time as one of those stalwart pillars of the mind pointing to a rational basis for belief in God.
Though the term “cosmological argument” sounds intimidating and the concept it strives to convey seems profound, this series of propositions endeavors to express a most elementary idea in a highly rational form. The thrust of the cosmological argument seeks to prove that the universe must have a cause and that only God can serve as an adequate explanation for the existence of the universe. Norman Geisler in “Introduction To Christian Philosophy” states the basic argument in the following manner: “(1) Finite changing things exist. (2) Every finite, changing thing must be caused by another. (3) There cannot be an infinite regress of causes. (4) Therefore, there must be a first uncaused cause of every finite changing thing that exists (page 267).” From here, Aquinas proceeds to argue that only God is powerful enough to serve as an explanation behind this uncaused cause.
This assertion is buttressed by Aquinas’ notion of contingency and the need for a necessary being. A contingent being, according to Ronald Nash in “Faith & Reason: Searching For A Rational Faith“, is one whose existence depends upon another and whose nonexistence is possible; likewise, a necessary being is one that must exist, does not depend on another being for its existence, and whose nonexistence is an impossibility (128). The necessary being ultimately serves as the sufficient reason for all contingent beings.
Despite the power of the cosmological argument, it has not escaped its share of scrutiny throughout the course of its distinguished existence. For while the conclusions of the cosmological argument seem to flow naturally within the framework of traditional Judeo-Christian theism, they are not quite as obvious to adherents of other philosophies and systems of thought or to those seeking to undermine them through a process of intense rationalistic analysis. Skeptics and opponents of the Judeo-Christian assumptions that the cosmological argument seeks to prove can call upon a number of criticisms and counterclaims in support of their contrarian position.
The first brand of criticism stems from those advocating worldviews hostile to Christian presuppositions that possess a considerable stake in finding an explanation for the origins of the universe through causes other than an instant of divine creation. Foremost among the systems opposing the premises of the cosmological argument stand the various strands of naturalism.
According to James Sire in “The Universe Next Door: A Basic Worldview Catalog“, the naturalist says matter is all there is and God does not exist (54). Or as Carl Sagan use to say, “The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.” Corliss Lamont, the 1977 Humanist of the Year, writes, “Humanism...believes in a naturalistic cosmology...that rules out all forms of the supernatural ... that regards nature as the totality of being and as a constantly changing system of events existing independently of any mind or consciousness (Understanding The Times, 117).”
Thus, as David Noeble of Summit Ministries responds in “Understanding The Times“, “For the Humanist, no personal First Cause exists; only the cosmos... There was no beginning and there can be no end. Of course, there is no need for a God to explain a beginning that did not happen (120).” Naturalists, therefore, find their explanation for the universe elsewhere Whereas theists such as Thomas Aquinas posit the answer to this important question with God, naturalists find it in a complex interaction of matter, physical laws, and a healthy sprinkling of chance.
David Nobel writes of the naturalist perspective, “Nature...cannot create but she can eternally transform (120). “ Naturalists attempt to abolish the so-called Thomist arguments for a creator denying the very concept of creation itself.
While it is not too difficult to confront the opponents of theism over those points where such glaring differences exist, the criticism couched in the careful formulations of sophisticated philosophical analysis can be somewhat more difficult to counter. For example, John Gerstner writes in “Reasons For Faith” that objections could be raised that the cosmological argument hinges upon the conclusion drawn from our own observation that all things have a cause (53).
The thrust of the cosmological argument hinges upon the conclusion drawn from our observations that all things have a cause. This proposition is put forward to prove the need for a so-called first “uncaused cause”. As the nitpicky skeptic might point out, if it is deduced through observation that all things have causes, is it not unreasonable to call upon an uncaused first cause? After all, would not something have to have caused it also. Such a deadlock leads to one of Kant’s antimonies of reason where debaters of equal rationality come to two semmingly reasonable conclusions: namely either the need of an uncaused first cause or the validity of an infinitely regressing eternal series of causes and effects.
Despite this apparent loggerheads between proponents and detractors of the cosmological proof, additional lines of argumentation and evidence exist tipping the scales in favor of justifiable theism. From the time of the Enlightenment onward, practitioners of what Francis Schaeffer referred to as “modern modern science" have endeavored to establish a conceptual framework for explaining the operations of the universe capable of standing without the need for an appeal to divine support. When asked by Napoleon where God fit into his system of celestial mechanics, Laplace is said to have responded, “I have no need for that hypothesis (Barbour, 42).” But ironically, the very system of airtight physical laws many scientists approach with an almost religious devotion ultimately point to and must at least be jumpstarted if not actively maintained by the very Creator these lab-coated agnostics are scurrying to get away from.
Despite possible variations in their extraneous details, there are only a limited number of cosmologies accounting for the existence of the universe, each with its own advantages and shortcomings depending upon where one lines up in the debate regarding this theistic argument. Astrophysicist and Professor of New Testament Robert Newman describes each of these possibilities in the article “The Evidence Of Cosmology” appearing in the anthology “Evidence For Faith” these systems are the Steady-State Universe, the Oscillating Cosmology, and the so-called “Big Bang” (Newman, 83-85).
The Steady-State model added a scientific veneer to the philosophical assumptions of naturalism by hypothesizing a universe eternally existing in a dynamic state of equilibrium whereby the density and energy levels of the cosmos remain constant as new matter is added as the boundaries of the system expand. Oscillating Cosmology pictures an ongoing cycle of universal birth, death, and rebirth as the universe continually expands outward in a burst of energy only to contract under the forces of its own gravity only to explode outward once again in an unending repetitive cosmic rhythm. The so-called “Big Bang”, at its most basic, postulates a singular specific moment when the universe expanded outward from a particular point at a definite moment in time.
These theories may all be well and good in terms of allowing the curious to speculate until their heart’s content. Yet ultimately they must correspond to actual reality if they are to be of any value beyond mere academic amusement.
It is against the cold hard wall of truth that these systems are forced to measure up against. These unavoidable truths eliminate the faulty explanations for the origins of the universe and point us back to the conclusions of the cosmological argument.
The First Law of Thermodynamics states that the sum total of matter and energy in the universe can neither be created nor destroyed; it remains constant. This is appended by the Second Law of Thermodynamics stating that the amount of energy available for useful work constantly decreases and the amount of entropy or disorder increases.
Any theory of origins seeking to undermine the need for a Creator by positing an everlasting cosmos is by definition scientifically impossible as one deduces from these physical laws. For every system that possesses a finite amount of useful energy must have a definite startup point.
If the universe is infinitely old as speculated by steady-state cosmologists, the universe would have wound down already. As D. James Kennedy notes in “How I Know There Is A God“, “...everything is running down; ... everything is wearing out; everything is growing old. So if the universe were eternal, it would have already wound down (6).”
Like it or not, the mechanics of the universe, as they exist as unvarnished facts, point to a theoretically specifiable beginning and cannot be compelled to testify against their designer. Dr. Kennedy further notes, “There was a time when there were men who believed that it [the universe] was [eternal] but with modern scientific discoveries it is no longer possible to believe that... For the last 150 years, scientists have been scurrying around trying to avoid the implications of the laws they have discovered (5).”
Despite harkening unto the exhortations of science when it is believed this manner of inquiry might prove a valuable ally in the ongoing struggle to dethrone the God of all space and time, this epistemological method is conveniently overlooked when it points in the direction of conclusions standing in opposition to cherished preconceived assumptions. Astronomer Fred Hoyle, a developer of the Steady -State Model, himself admitted that his affinity for this particular system was not so much born out of pure science but rather because this particular variety of cosmology was more philosophically satisfying than those characterized with a beginning (Newman, 83). Thus, the unvarnished facts may have little initial impact upon those holding such a viewpoint who feel seemingly remote matters such as the origins of the universe have little bearing upon their average workaday lives.
The Christian thinker must proceed by showing how one’s position regarding the data pointing to the divine origins of the universe impacts one’s relation to the remaining branches of knowledge and how one cannot ignore the issue without felling the entire noetic tree. The laws of objective physical science clearly teach that the universe came into existence at a particular point in time.
This leaves the cogitator with two possible explanations: either the universe came into existence of its own accord or was brought into existence by some entity greater and more complete in and of itself. Diehard agnostics will continue to insist upon the alternative excluding the influence of deity, which means they would select the alternative suggesting the universe came into existence on its own. Yet reason dictates that only nothing can come from nothing.
As an experiment, take a first-full of nothing and plant it in a flowerpot and see how long it takes to grow a plant from it. Now how much longer will it take for an entire developed universe with complex organisms and sophisticated civilizations to sprout from it? John Frame in Apologetics "To The Glory Of God: An Introduction", argues that those refusing to assent to the theistic conclusions in light of such compelling logic and evidence must concede to the madness of irrationalism since it flies in the face of common sense to hold that everything in the physical universe requires a cause but the finite contingent universe itself (111).
While advocates of the cosmological argument will spend much of their time trying to convince their nontheistic counterparts as to its validity, they might be surprised to learn significant suspicion of it lurks within certain corners of the Christian camp. Ronald Nash examines a number of these Christian criticisms and concerns in his analysis of the cosmological argument as detailed in "Faith & Reason: Searching For A Rational Faith".
Foremost among the cautions raised by Christians skeptical as to the value of the cosmological argument ranks the realization that the God attested to by this renowned theistic proof could very well fall short of the Lord boldly proclaimed in the pages of the Bible and could very easily resemble something more akin to deism (Nash, 122-124). For example, the purpose of the cosmological argument is to postulate a God that gets the proverbial ball rolling. However, on its own it does not initially provide enough argumentative steam to establish argumentively a God who actively sustains the universe, to say nothing of one that loves and cares for that part of the creation molded in his own image.
Furthermore, since the world and the universe are a composite of a number of complex interactive systems, one could argue that each was set in motion by its own unique first cause. According to Norman Geisler in “Introduction To Philosophjy: A Christian Perspective“, Aristotle himself believed in between forty-seven and fifty-five of these entities, each responsible for a particular sphere of the heavens (172). At best, such an arrangement would give one a situation something akin to polytheism where one god ruled the sky and another the sea. And in bringing the Greek and other ancient pantheons into the mix, Ronald Nash points out that the cosmological argument fails to address the moral and redemptive natures of God so central to the message of Scripture that sets the Christian message apart from other world religions. One could very well maneuver the most vile reprobates into acknowledging the existence of such a God without having it make the slightest impact on such a libertine lifestyle.
Of the cosmological argument, Ronald Nash writes, “...if we reject special revelation and attempt to reason our way from what we know about the world to the existence of a supposed First Cause, the most we can establish still leaves us a long way from...(the) God of the Bible (124).” Thus the Christian following in the footsteps of Aquinas comes to a very important fork in the road. On the one hand, the intellectually engaged believer finds that the given of the universe needing a creator is not quite universally assumed as they originally thought it to be; on the other, there are those within the Christian’s own camp who insightfully warn as to the potential dangers and shortcomings of this hallowed argument. What is the Christian to do?
The good news is that the cosmological argument does not need to be tossed aside with the rest of the philosophical rubbish. Just as an army cannot rely on any one weapon system if it hopes to carry out a successful military campaign, if they are going to utilize the cosmological argument as part of their apologetic arsenal, they must incorporate it into the framework of a comprehensive strategy of evangelization. It might be best to look at the cosmological argument not so much as some epiphanial revelation silencing all opposition from then on out but rather as a tool to extract knowledge already buried in the deep recesses of the soul.
Romans 2:14-15 reads, “Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law...since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them (NIV).” Likewise, Psalms 14:1 reads, “The fool says in his hear, ‘There is no God.’.” Thus, whether they choose to admit it or not, a primordial knowledge of God exists somewhere within the human soul. The trick is getting the individual to assent to this as they are being guided down along the path to belief in Christ. The problem is that man has gone out of his way in the attempt to shake free from the truth of God’s existence that weighs down the sin-laden conscience.
Romans 1:20-21 says, “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities...have been clearly seen, being understood for what has been made, so that men are without excuse. For although they knew God they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened (NIV).” The task of the Christian becomes to show the unbeliever how it is untenable to live in a theistic Christian world with non-Christian, atheistic assumptions.
In Van Tillian terminology, this is the point of contact (Frame, 82-83). The cosmological argument is best used as one of these conversation starters rather than as the be-all and end-all of the discussion. In essence, the cosmological argument is more a defense of already held belief rather than a foundation upon which belief in the true God is built upon.
Ronald Nash writes, “Suppose...that we regard it [natural theology] as an inquiry into whether the Christian world-view fits what we know about the outer and inner worlds (Nash, 96).” Nash continues, “...instead of seeking coercive proofs for conclusions that all right-minded and open-minded persons would accept, we view our task as the more modest one of seeing if the Christian worldview does what we expect any worldview to do (97).”
The cosmological argument has enjoyed a robust history throughout the course of Western intellectual and ecclesiastical history. It has sparked considerable discussion and debate as its advocates herald it as a tool through which to apprehend a slice of the infinite while its detractors dismiss it as the leftover mental baggage of a less rational era. But regardless of where one lines up along this ongoing debate, one cannot help but admit that the discussion will continue until the Lord Himself decides to intervene and settle the issue on His own once and for all before then.