The Self-Existent God
FROM R.C. Sproul Apr 30, 2018
When God revealed His name “I AM” to Moses at the burning bush, He was revealing something very important about Himself, namely, that He is self-existent; He has the power of being in and of Himself. He depends on nothing and no one for His existence. This fact has enormous consequences for how we understand the world around us.
Antony Flew was an English philosopher who, though known for his work in philosophy of religion, was a devout atheist for much of his professional career. In fact, in 1968, he published a book titled Reason and Responsibility, which contained an argument against the existence of God. His argument became known as “Flew’s Parable.” But at the age of eighty-one, Flew “converted” and became a theist, at one point saying, “I now realise that I have made a fool of myself by believing that there were no presentable theories of the development of inanimate matter up to the first living creature capable of reproduction.” Flew understood that, apart from this view, known as the “God hypothesis,” science itself would be impossible.
The Christian faith is constantly under attack in the secular world, and in recent generations the weapons of criticism have been aimed chiefly at the idea of creation. Secularists understand that if they can refute the biblical concept of creation, they will have dealt a mortal blow against Christianity—and against all religion. Critics are cynical about the idea that the universe was created by God, a personal, transcendent, immutable being, saying that such an idea is unscientific, illogical, and a myth.
To understand the seeds of this skepticism, one must go back to the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. The principal thesis of the Enlightenment was that the God hypothesis was no longer necessary for modern science to account for the origin of human life or the universe. Before the Enlightenment, philosophers, even if they were not believers, had to give obeisance to Christian philosophy because they couldn’t account for the universe apart from some idea of a transcendent being.
With the advent of the Enlightenment, all of this fell away. Scholars said, “We can explain the universe, and life in its origin, without an appeal to a transcendent deity.” Some publicly declared themselves the personal enemies of God, saying they had identified the cause of the universe and of life: spontaneous generation. For instance, they would look at a mud puddle. With the naked eye, they could see nothing in the mud puddles, but then all of a sudden, tadpoles were swimming in the mud puddle. These scholars surmised that the tadpoles came into being through their own power. That is, they were self-created. (Today we would know that there were microscopic frogs’ eggs in the puddle.)
There are only three possible explanations for anything that exists now: it is self-created, it is eternal, or it is created by something that is eternal. I gave a presentation at Yale, with faculty philosophers present, where I presented these options; they agreed that it had to be one of these three. Notice that the second two possibilities involve something eternal. If the first possibility can be eliminated, then the thesis that something has always been is proven.
Of course, the concept of spontaneous generation is simply another term for self-creation; it gets a lot of credibility in modern society, but careful examination of the concept will reveal that the idea is an absurd logical impossibility. Why? Because for something to create itself, it would have to be before it was—it would have to be and not be at the same time and in the same relationship, which violates a fundamental principle of truth and science: the law of noncontradiction.
When the Hubble Space Telescope was sent into space to gather more information on the expanding universe, one of the most famous astrophysicists in America was interviewed on the radio. He said, “Fifteen to seventeen billion years ago, the universe exploded into being.” What was it before it exploded into being? The only option was nonbeing—which would mean that a fundamental scientific precept was violated: ex nihilo nihil fit—“out of nothing, nothing comes.” When an otherwise distinguished astrophysicist declares that you get something out of nothing, he stops being a reputable astrophysicist.
In his book Being and Nothingness, John-Paul Sartre argued that if God exists, then morality is impossible—because for morality to be significant, people have to be not only free but autonomous. If God exists, we could not be autonomous; since we can’t be autonomous, we can’t really be moral. Thus, Sartre claimed, the existence of morality makes the God hypothesis impossible.
In the final analysis, the question of God’s existence is really not an intellectual question but a moral one. Fallen human beings will go to every extreme possible to banish God as their judge. The controversy about intelligent design is about the same thing. “Intelligent design” is redundant; if something is designed, it had to have been by something intelligent. But we want to have unintelligible design—unintentional intentionality, and the absurdities mount up forever. The idea of self-creation is an attempt to explain the universe that is like pulling a rabbit out of the hat, but there’s no rabbit in the hat until the magician waves his magic wand; then, voilà! Out comes the rabbit. But what this idea really posits is a rabbit out of the hat without the rabbit, without the hat, and without the magician.
In contrast to self-creation there is the idea of self-existence, or what is called in theology the concept of aseity. That is an obscure and esoteric term. Yet, that one little word captures all of the glory of the perfection of God’s being. What makes God different from people, from the stars, from earthquakes, and from any other creaturely thing is that God—and God alone—has aseity; He alone exists by His own power. No one made Him or caused Him. He exists in and of Himself. This is a quality that no creature shares. People are not self-existent; neither are cars or stars. Only God has the concept of self-existence.
Some people stumble over the idea of God’s self-existence—even someone like the brilliant twentieth-century philosopher Bertrand Russell. In his book Why I Am Not a Christian, Russell said that when he was eighteen years old, he read an essay by the philosopher John Stuart Mill. Up to that point, he had affirmed the existence of God. But, Russell said, “At the age of eighteen, I read John Stuart Mill’s Autobiography, and I there found this sentence: ‘My father taught me that the question “Who made me?” cannot be answered, since it immediately suggests the further question “Who made god?”’ That very simple sentence showed me, as I still think, the fallacy in the argument of the First Cause. If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause.” Russell had made an elementary error. The law of causality does not say that everything has to have a cause; rather, it says that every effect must have an antecedent cause. An effect is something that is caused by something else. A cause can only be a cause if it produces an effect. But God is not an effect, caused by something before Him. He is self-existent. He owes His being to nothing outside of Himself. He has the power of being within Himself.
Someone may ask, “What’s the difference between self-creation and self-existence? Aren’t they both a challenge to logic?” No—self-creation is illogical and absurd. But consider the idea of something that exists eternally on its own power. Is there anything irrational about that? That’s not to say that if something can pass the test of rationality, it must be true. I’m not saying that. But the idea of self-existence violates no law of reason; it’s a rational concept. Not only is the idea of a self-existent being possible, but as Thomas Aquinas said, “God’s being, unlike any other thing that exists, is necessary being.”
A necessary being is a being who cannot not be. It exists by the sheer necessity of its eternal being, of its aseity. A self-existent being is not hypothetical or dependent on another concept; it’s necessary. God can’t not be. Not only is God’s being necessary ontologically, but it’s also logically necessary. If anything exists now, something must have aseity. God must have the power of being within Himself that is not derived from something outside of Himself. This is transcendent being.
When we talk about God’s transcendence, we mean that way in which God is greater and superior to anything in the finite, created world. Something has to be eternal, and if it is eternal, it is so because it can’t stop being. But why can’t there be some inanimate thing in the universe from which everything else derives? Why do we have to say that we need a transcendent being?
When we use the word transcendent with respect to God, we are not referring to geography, to where God lives. If God is self-existent, eternal, and pure, then He is, by definition, transcendent. He’s a higher order of being. It is for that reason that God calls Himself “I AM.” When we consider the transcendence and aseityof our God, we will respond in worship and awe—just as Moses did at the burning bush.
This excerpt is adapted from Moses and the Burning Bush by R.C. Sproul; Ligonier Ministries.