Article ID: JAE415 | By: R. Keith Loftin
This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 41, number 5 (2018). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.
“Yeah, but who created God?” The question can feel like an attempted gotcha moment in apologetic encounters, even to seasoned apologists. In a culture increasingly conditioned to “win” arguments with soundbite retorts, Christian apologists must not react dismissively to this common question. It’s true this is logically similar to asking, “Who is the bachelor’s wife?” or “Who made the play at second base before the game started?” or “Where is the number three stored?” Though odd, these questions invite a serious answer. These are not fallacious questions; rather, they are based on apparent misunderstandings. But what is being misunderstood, and why? I have found that attempting to understand another person’s point of view not only makes for more amiable dialogue but also more fruitful discussion, so let us take the question seriously.
What Is the Objection? Orthodox Christians affirm that God is, as the Apostles’ Creed puts it, the “creator of heaven and earth.” That is, of course, explicitly taught in Scripture (e.g., Gen. 1:1 and John 1:3). The Nicene Creed further declares God the “creator of all things visible and invisible.” Traditionally this has been understood as a creation ex nihilo, that is, a creation out of nothing. Whereas Plato’s demiurge is said to “create” in the sense of imposing order upon pre–existing, primordial materials,1 the Christian view is that God brought the universe into being from nonbeing. It is not uncommon for Christians to argue for God’s existence on the basis of various types of design or the fine–tuning of the universe. One common variation of such an argument reasons that the best explanation for the breathtakingly improbable confluence of features requisite for a life–permitting universe such as ours to exist is that God exists as its designer.2 After all, that this confluence is a result of some happy coincidence or physical necessity beggars belief.
Skeptics, however, are not convinced. Physicist Stephen Hawking, for example, concludes his seminal book A Brief History of Time by asking, “Why does the universe go to all the trouble of existing?…Does it need a creator, and, if so, does he have any other effect on the universe? And who created him?”3 Prominent New Atheist Richard Dawkins insists, “The designer hypothesis immediately raises the larger problem of who designed the designer.”4 What exactly is the objection? Here, perhaps, is one way of understanding the skeptic’s reasoning:
- All things are created by God.
- God is a thing.
- Therefore, God is created by God.
From there, it is simple enough to derive problems:
- No thing is able to bring itself into existence.
- Therefore, God is unable to bring God into existence.
Let us consider this line of reasoning. Now, skeptics clearly do not believe (1) and (2). Skeptics do believe, however, that Christian belief in the doctrine of creation is encapsulated in (1), and they also interpret (2) as expressing the claim that God exists. The objection is best understood, I think, as an attempt to highlight a perceived contradiction or absurdity within Christian thought. If (1) and (2) are true, then (3) does logically follow. But the claim that “God is created by God” runs afoul of a commonsense philosophical principle, which Aquinas articulates well: “There is no case known (neither is it, indeed, possible) in which a thing is found to be the efficient cause of itself; for so it would be prior to itself, which is impossible.”5 In other words, no thing is able to bring itself into existence. And so from claims (2) and (4) is inferred the conclusion of (5): God is unable to bring God into existence. Since (3) and (5) are contradictory, the skeptic reasons, Christians will have to give up believing either that all things are created by God, that God is a thing, or that no thing is able to bring itself into existence — none of which Christians will adjudge welcome options.
Thinking about Things. How are Christians to avoid this contradiction? Certainly Christians will not wish to deny premise (4), as “bring things into existence” is a (rough) definition of “create.” After all, the truth of (4) seems to be a deliverance of common sense. Moreover, if things can bring themselves into existence, then for all we know the universe brought itself into existence. But that obviously is not compatible with the Christian understanding of creation. What about (3), the claim that God created God? No Christian should want to accept that claim. But since (3) is a conclusion (rather than a premise), if we wish to escape it, we shall have to deny one or both of (3)’s supporting premises. Let’s think about each, beginning with (2).
How we think about (2) will depend a good deal on what is meant by the term thing. Don’t worry: we need not become bogged down in semantics. In order to give the skeptic’s objection the most charitable interpretation, we can stipulate that thing means simply an existent (that is, an entity having being). In other words, although thing isn’t the most flattering of terms, Christians could stipulate to thing as the most generic of terms used to refer to existents, making no claim as to the origin of any thing. This stipulation allows Christians to accept that “God is a thing.”
With this in mind, let’s turn our attention to premise (1). As we’re understanding the skeptic’s objection — namely, as deriving a contradiction from Christian commitments — the term thing is being used equivocally (that is, in different senses) between premises (1) and (2). Now, equivocation is an informal logical fallacy, so it must be avoided if we’re to think with clarity. Consider the following example of equivocation:
- All parties vote on legislation.
- My birthday celebration is a party.
- Therefore, my birthday celebration votes on legislation.
By using party in two different senses (equivocating), this argument gives us a conclusion that is nonsensical. But since (6) and (7) mirror the logic of (1) and (2), we see that the conclusion of (3) — “Therefore, God is created by God” — no more follows from the latter than the conclusion of (8) follows from the former. So, we can deny (3) because it doesn’t follow from (1) and (2).
Thinking about the Creator. But the question remains: should Christians accept (1), the claim that “All things are created by God”? In a word, no. Let me explain. By now, one recognizes that the skeptics aren’t using thing to mean what, for example, Paul means when he says, “By him all things were created” (Col. 1:16). The Christian doctrine of creation does not hold that God created literally every existent thing. Historical Christianity has affirmed the absolute beginning of all things other than God.6 This is evident in Paul’s next sentence: “He himself is before all things” (Col. 1:17; cf. Ps. 90:2). The doctrine of creation is that God created ex nihilo all that is not God. So the skeptic’s first premise does not accurately summarize any Christian claim, and that is important because it undercuts the Who made God? objection.
Further, by broadening the meaning of thing to include all existents, the skeptics are hoist with their own petard. This is because if all things are equally contingent (that is, if they all equally could have failed to exist), then there would be no things in existence, including the skeptics themselves. In other words, I see before me many things: pictures, a laptop, a window, trees, all of which might very well never have existed. But they do. There is for each of them, therefore, a cause of its existence. What about those causes? If the causes are themselves contingent things, then we’ve simply kicked the can down the road; ultimately, our explanation of things must culminate in the activity of a necessary cause (that is, a cause that cannot fail to exist).7 Skeptics must pay a steep price indeed for using thing to refer literally to all existents.
On the Christian understanding, one of God’s essential attributes is necessity: God exists as a necessary being. God does not just happen to exist; God must exist. That is to say, it is not possible for God not to exist, which is just what Christians mean when they claim that one of God’s attributes is necessity. The notion, then, that God could be a created thing—that is, a contingent thing—is a fundamental misunderstanding of what Christians mean by “God.”
Conclusion. So, who made God? The only answer can be “No one or no thing made God.” Although we can say that God is a thing in the sense that God is an existent with being, it is a mistake to think that God is therefore just another contingent thing. Lying behind the equivocal use of the term thing is the conflation of contingent being and necessary being (the sort of existence had by my laptop versus the sort of existence had by God). Having failed to make this distinction, it is not surprising that the skeptic is confused about the Christian doctrine of creation (as well as about the nature of God). Being built on a basis of confusion regarding what Christians actually believe about God and creation, the skeptic’s “Who made God?” objection skitters into a logical cul-de-sac, thus begging the question. Rather than dismiss the objection, Christians should patiently address the underlying confusion. In taking the “Who made God?” objection seriously, Christians invite skeptics into more amiable dialogue and also more fruitful discussion. —R. Keith Loftin
Keith Loftin (PhD, theology, University of Aberdeen) is associate professor of philosophy and humanities, as well as assistant dean, at Scarborough College in Fort Worth, Texas.
- Plato, Timaeus, 28b–31b.
- See Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2011), 240–54.
- Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time (New York: Bantam Books, 1988), 174.
- Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006), 158. Cf. Graham Oppy, Arguing about Gods (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 231–32.
- Thomas Aquinas, The Summa Theologica, in Introduction to St. Thomas Aquinas, ed. Anton C. Pegis (New York: Modern Library, 1948), 1a q.2 a.3.
- See, e.g., Iranaeus, Against Heresies, 2.1.1 and 2.10.4.
- Stephen Evans and R. Zachary Manis, Philosophy of Religion, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 69.