Help The Gospel Coalition continue supplying free resources to strengthen the global church.

How Time and Infinity Point to a Creator

[Note: This is the ninth article in an occasional series on apologetics and worldview analysis. Since it's a continuation of the previous article, “Apologetics and the Role of Plausibility Structures”, you may want to read that one before continuing.]

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”

The first words of the Bible state that the universe had a beginning — and that its cause was God. Genesis clarifies what God has also shown us through reason, mathematics, and natural theology: a universe that has a beginning points to a Creator.

Cosmological arguments are the name for the type of theistic arguments that start from creation and work back to a Creator. They argue a posteriori, from effect to cause and are based on the principle of causality which states that every event has a cause, or that every thing that begins has a cause. One of the oldest incarnations of this form is known as the kalam cosmological argument.

Although the name was given by William Lane Craig, one of the most ardent of defenders of the argument, its history can be traced to Islamic philosophers such as Alfarabi, Al Ghazli, and Avicenna, and scholastic philosophers like Bonaventure. The basic outline of the kalam argument is:

1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause.

2. The universe began to exist.

3. Therefore, the universe has a cause.

The first premise is generally considered unobjectionable. Few atheists are willing to concede, as philosopher Quentin Smith once remarked, that “the most reasonable belief is that we came from nothing, by nothing, and for nothing.” Most reasonable people refuse to accept that the universe sprang into existence uncaused out of nothing.

The second premise, therefore, is the heart of the argument and the point that must be defended. Historically, two philosophical and two scientific lines of evidence are generally given in support of this premise. As apologist Norman Geisler explains, the scientific evidence is based heavily on the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which affirms that the universe is running out of usable energy and, hence, cannot be eternal. Other supportive evidence is taken from Big Bang cosmology, including the expanding universe and the purported radiation echo of the original explosion—all of which are taken to support the idea of a beginning of the universe. For the purposes of this article, we’ll ignore the scientific lines of argument.

The two philosophical arguments share a similar approach. One is an argument from the impossibility of an actual infinite number of things. The other is an argument from the impossibility of forming an actually infinite collection of things by adding one member after another. While I consider the first argument to be more interesting, its ability to be convincing requires an understanding of mathematical concepts such as infinity and set theory that are foreign to most people (including me).

The second argument, on the other hand, can be grasped more intuitively. If we accept that the converse of our second premise is true then we believe that the universe did not begin to exist, that it had no beginning. A series of events in time that has no beginning would be an actual infinite. In other words, if the series of past events had no beginning, it is actually infinite. An actual infinite, according to set theory, is a collection of things with an infinite number of members. One of the unique traits of an actual infinite is that part of an actually infinite set is equal to whole set.

For example, in an actually infinite set of numbers, the number of even numbers in the set is equal to all of the numbers in the set. This follows because an infinite set of numbers contains an infinite number of even numbers as well as an infinite number of all numbers; hence a part of the set is equal to the whole of the set. Another trait of the actual infinite is that nothing can be added to it. Not one book can be added to an actually infinite library or one painting to an actually infinite museum.

The basic form of the second argument can therefore be outlined as:

1. The series of events in time is a collection formed by adding one member after another.

2. A collection formed by adding one member after another cannot be actually infinite.

3. Therefore, the series of events in time cannot be actually infinite.

The primary point of contention with this argument would be that while an infinite collection cannot be formed by beginning at a point and adding members, it might be possible to create an infinite collection by never beginning but yet ending at a specific point. In other words, while the universe may not have had a beginning we could start at an ending point (i.e., the present) and count back toward eternity. Craig explains why this counter to the argument is implausible:

The idea of a beginningless series ending in the present seems to be absurd. To give just one illustration: suppose we meet a man who claims to have been counting from eternity and is now finishing: …, -3, -2, -1, 0. We could ask, why did he not finish counting yesterday or the day before or the year before? By then an infinite time had already elapsed, so that he should have finished by then. Thus, at no point in the infinite past could we ever find the man finishing his countdown, for by that point he should have already be done! In fact, no matter how far back into the past we go, we can never find the man counting at all, for at any point we reach he will have already finished. But if at no point in the past do we find him counting this contradicts the hypothesis that he has been counting from eternity. This illustrates the fact that the formation of an actual infinite by successive addition is equally impossible whether one proceeds to or from infinity.

Assuming these arguments are convincing, we can conclude that the universe began to exist—that is, that the universe had a beginning. The next set of questions that remain are whether the entity that caused the universe to come into existence was either natural or non-natural and either personal or non-personal.

The first set appears to be the easiest to resolve. Since natural causes are causes that exist within the universe, not outside of it, any cause that preceded the creation of the universe must be, by definition, non-natural (or, if you prefer, supernatural). The second set is a bit trickier, and is contingent on whether the cause of the universe was sufficient (meaning that the existence of the cause alone guarantees the existence of the universe) or whether the cause had to be set in motion by a rational (hence, personal) agent.

An example of how to think about the answer is provided by Bill Ramsey:

To make this clear consider the sufficient cause of lighting a match. When a match is struck against the proper surface, it ignites, and thus striking the match is the sufficient cause of an ignited match. Note that as soon as a sufficient cause exists, the effect follows immediately; there is no gap between the cause and the effect. This raises a question: if the sufficient cause of the universe has always existed, then why has the universe not always existed?

The answer to this question is that the cause of the universe is a personal agent who willed the creation of a finite universe. To use the match example, once the match is struck the effect immediately follows, but if a personal agent does not strike the match, the effect does not have to follow. Likewise, if the cause of the universe is personal, the universe does not have to be eternal like its sufficient cause. Instead, the universe could have been willed into existence much like a person wills to light a match. Once the cause is set into motion the effect follows, but only after the cause is set into motion; and a personal agent has the power not to set the cause in motion. Thus we can conclude that the cause of the universe is personal.

Incorporating the elements into a whole, we can conclude that the universe was caused to come into existence at a finite point in time by a rational, personal Being. This conclusion, while not indisputable, certainly presents one more reasonable argument why it is more likely than not that God exists. It increases the plausibility that theism is true and atheism is false. Unfortunately, kalam, like all arguments for natural theology, can only drop us off at the door of theism. Special revelation is required to carry us up the steps and inside the inner sanctum where God reveals himself—specifically in the form of Jesus Christ.

In future posts, we'll take a look at other arguments for the existence of God in these categories:

Ontological Arguments — Ontological arguments are arguments, for the conclusion that God exists, from premises which are supposed to derive from some source other than observation of the world, i.e., from reason alone.

Teleological Arguments — Theistic arguments which share a focus on plan, purpose, intention and design.

Moral Arguments — Theistic arguments that include or rely on a moral component.

See also:

Other Posts in This Series:

Celestial Teapots, Flying Spaghetti Monsters, and Other Silly Atheist Arguments

What does 1+1=2 Mean?

What is a Religious Belief?

When Atheists Are Angry at God

Do Tummy Aches Disprove God?

Naming Your Turtles

Should You Trust the Monkey Mind?