This question is posed by small children, by college students, and by leaders of atheist societies. It is essentially an interrogative about the nature of causality. To answer this common query effectively requires both a philosophical and a theological response.
Some atheists argue that if the universe needs a cause (namely God), then why doesn’t God need a cause? And if not everything needs a cause, then maybe the universe is one of those things that doesn’t need a cause. This reasoning is an attempt to sidestep the basic cosmological argument (see sidebar) that has been around for centuries (at least since Aristotle, 384-322 BC).
Here are two forms of the cosmological argument.
Kalam Cosmological Argument:
- Whatever begins to exist has a cause for its coming into being.
- The universe began to exist.
- Therefore, the universe has a cause for its coming into being.
Contingency Cosmological Argument:
- All contingent realities depend for their existence upon a non-contingent or necessary reality.
- The universe is a contingent reality.
- Therefore, the universe depends for its existence on a non-contingent or necessary reality.
Christian theists, however, don’t argue that everything needs a cause. Rather, they argue that anything that begins must have a cause. The argument involves a distinction between a contingent reality and a necessary reality. A contingent reality is something that is caused (begins), is dependent (an effect), and lacks an explanation in itself (unexplained). A contingent reality could either exist or not exist, but it certainly could not bring itself into existence from nothing.
A necessary reality, on the other hand, is uncaused, independent, and self-explanatory. A necessary reality cannot not exist (or must exist). So how does this distinction help in answering the question about God and causality?
Consider the universe. Big bang cosmology provides powerful evidence that the universe is contingent. According to the prevailing scientific view of cosmology, the space-time-matter-energy universe had a distinct and singular beginning about 14 billion years ago. The universe, therefore, appears to be an effect and, thus, is seemingly dependent upon something outside of and beyond itself (a transcendent causal agent).
Remember, a contingent reality by definition cannot bring itself into existence. But since the universe came into existence (had a singular beginning), then some other reality must have caused or created it from nonexistence.
Also, a contingent reality cannot be explained by appealing to another contingent reality. For example, it isn’t coherent to argue that the universe was created by God, but God was in turn created by God to the second power, who was in turn created by God to the third power, and so on. As Aristotle cogently argued, there must be a reality that causes but is itself uncaused (or, a being that moves but is itself unmoved). Why? Because if there is an infinite regression of causes, then by definition the whole process could never begin. And nothing is explained. Many Christian thinkers view Aristotle’s reasoning on this point as probative.
In summary, then, the universe appears to be a contingent entity and, therefore, cannot stand on its own without a causal explanation. For many Christian scholars through the centuries, the contingent universe (a creation) requires a necessary reality (an eternally existent Creator) that by definition needs no causal explanation.
A theological understanding of God’s nature can help address the question as well. According to the Bible, God is self-existent. Theologians refer to this trait as God’s attribute of aseity. God does not need, nor does he depend upon, anything outside himself (such as the creation) for his continued existence. Unlike all creatures, the source of God’s eternal or everlasting existence is found within himself (self-sufficiency). As the only uncreated and uncaused being, everything else (the entire created order) depends upon his creative and sustaining power. This absolute independence places God in a different category of being than that of man.
The Creator is qualitatively different than the creature and is a necessary being (God must exist or cannot not exist). Theologian J. I. Packer contrasts God’s existence with that of man: “He [God] exists in a different way from us: we, his creatures, exist in a dependent, derived, finite, fragile way, but our Maker exists in an eternal, self-sustaining, necessary way.”1
Scripture reveals God’s attribute of self-existence or aseity (Isaiah 40:13-14; John 5:26; Romans 11:34-35). As the Apostle Paul proclaimed in his speech before the Greek philosophers: “And he [God] is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else” (Acts 17:25).
Therefore the God of the Bible reveals himself to be an eternal and self-sufficient being without beginning or end.2 God is the logically necessary being that explains why all the contingent realities of the universe have actual existence.
Perhaps the Who created God? question can be condensed to this answer: nobody did because nobody could.
- J. I. Packer, Concise Theology: A Guide to Historic Christian Beliefs (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 1993), 26.
- For more on the Christian view of God, see Kenneth Richard Samples, A World of Difference: Putting Christian Truth-Claims to the Worldview Test (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007).