Doctrine of God (Part 2)

February 18, 2015

Aseity

Today we begin our study of the attributes of God. This is really my favorite section of theology. We are going to begin by looking at some of the infinite attributes of God; that is to say, those which are God’s, not in virtue of his personhood, but simply in virtue of his being an infinite being.

The first attribute that we want to examine together is God’s self-existence or, as it is more properly called, God’s aseity. Aseity comes from the Latin words a se which means “by itself” or “in itself.” The idea here is that God exists a se; he simply exists in himself. Or, as I put it here on the outline in English, God is self-existent.

Let’s begin by looking at some of the scriptural data that indicate that God is a self-existent being. Let’s begin in the Old Testament by looking at a passage from the book of Isaiah, Isaiah 40:17-23, 28a. This is Isaiah’s polemic against pagan idolatry. He mocks the idols in contrast to the God of Israel who is the uncreated Creator of all things. So, in Isaiah 40:17 and following we read:

All the nations are as nothing before him, they are accounted by him as less than nothing and emptiness. To whom then will you liken God, or what likeness compare with him? The idol! a workman casts it, and a goldsmith overlays it with gold, and casts for it silver chains. He who is impoverished chooses for an offering wood that will not rot; he seeks out a skilful craftsman to set up an image that will not move. Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to dwell in; who brings princes to nought, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing. . . . Have you not known? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.

Here Isaiah portrays God as the uncreated Creator of all things and compared to God these other things are as nothingness and as emptiness next to God. God in Isaiah’s conception is unique as this uncreated self-existing being.

Turn over in the New Testament to Revelation 4:11. Here is the praise that is given to God in heaven: “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.” Here God is said to be the creator of all things; they exist by his will.

One of the most important passages for the attribute of divine aseity is John 1:1-3. Here John says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.”[1] Here John says that at the very beginning (he is harking back to Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning God created the heavens and Earth;” as it were, prior to creation, in the very beginning) all that exists is God and his Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He existed in the beginning. Then everything else comes into existence through God’s word. All things were made through him. The verb here can also mean “to come into being.” So this could be translated “all things came into being through him.” So at the very beginning you have God and his Word as self-existent and then everything else coming into being through the creatorial power of God’s Word.

These are some of the most important passages testifying to God’s self-existence and his being the source of the existence for everything that exists apart from him.

According to the Scripture, God not only created the world initially, but he also preserves it in being. Look at Nehemiah 9:6. Ezra said:

Thou art the LORD, thou alone; thou hast made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them; and thou preservest all of them; and the host of heaven worships thee.

Here Ezra says not only that God is the one who has brought into being initially heaven and the Earth and everything that is in them, but also he preserves them in being. God is not only the initial creator billions of years ago, but he also is the conserver of these things in being moment-by-moment as they endure.

The Scripture thus testifies that God is the source, the sustainer, and the goal of all reality outside himself. Romans 11:36: “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.” Notice here that all things are from God; he is the source of their being. They exist through him; he sustains them in existence. And he is the end of their existence; he is the goal toward which all things tend. God is the source, the sustainer, and the goal of all things other than himself. One might compare in this connection Hebrews 2:10. Hebrews 2:10 refers to God as the one “for whom and by whom all things exist.”

God, by contrast, didn’t come from anywhere. He didn’t come into being at all. God just is. He just exists. Psalm 90:2 says, “Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting thou art God.” Here the psalmist imagines God existing as it were before creation, before anything had been brought into being. He says God just is. From everlasting to everlasting God exists.[2]

One might compare in this connection the revelation of the divine name to Moses in Exodus 3:14. You’ll remember when Moses presses God as to his name, God says, Tell them ‘I am that I am’ has sent you to them. That is God’s name. He is the self-existent being. I am that I am.

It is interesting that in the New Testament all of these same qualities (being self-existent, the source and sustainer and goal of all created things) are also ascribed to Jesus Christ. Christ is said to possess these same properties.

Look at some representative verses. 1 Corinthians 8:5-6. Paul writes:

For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many ‘gods’ and many ‘lords’ – yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.

Notice how the description of God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ are so similar. God the Father is described as the one from whom and for whom we exist, and Christ is the one through whom we exist. So Christ is God’s instrument in sustaining the world in being.

Look also at Hebrews 1:1-3a:

In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature, upholding the universe by his word of power.

Here, again, Christ is described as bearing the imprint of the divine nature, and then carrying out this quality or this role that belongs properly to God of creating the world and sustaining it in being.

Finally, in Paul’s letter to the church of Colossae – Colossians 1:15-17 – Paul says:

He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities – all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

So I think that you can see that this property of being the self-existent source of everything else is attributed to Christ as well as to God the Father which is a tremendous affirmation of the deity of Christ – of his full divinity.

Let’s discuss this attribute and see if we can systematize and understand it.

The Bible is affirming that God is a self-existent being. Minimally that would mean that God doesn’t depend upon anything else for his existence. If everything else were magically to disappear, God would still be there. He exists independently of anything else.

I think aseity or self-existence is even stronger, even more robust an attribute than simply existing independently of other things.[3] Aseity means that God exists by a necessity of his own nature. That is to say, it belongs to God’s very nature to exist. He doesn’t just happen to exist and happen to be independent of everything else. Rather, God exists by a necessity of his own nature. So if God’s nature is possible – if it is logically possible for God to exist – then he exists. He exists by a necessity of his own nature.

If that is right, what this implies is that the attribute of divine aseity entails two other important divine attributes. First, God’s eternity. If God exists by a necessity of his own nature then it is impossible that God would ever fail to exist, and therefore that he could come into being or go out of being. If God exists by a necessity of his own nature then he will exist permanently without beginning or end. That is to say, he will be eternal. God’s attribute of being eternal is entailed by his aseity.

Another important attribute of God that would be entailed by aseity would be God’s necessity. That is to say, God is not a being that just happens to exist in this world (the actual world) but fails to exist if some other possible world were actual instead. Rather, God exists necessarily. That is to say, he exists in every possible world. No matter which world you might imagine could have been actual, God exists in that world. There is no possible world in which God is absent. God exists in every possible world because he exists by a necessity of his own nature. So if his nature is even possible then God will exist in every world.

So God is not merely an eternal being. He is much, much more than that. He is a necessary being. He is a being which must exist, a being whose non-existence is impossible. This is appropriate to the concept of God because God is the greatest conceivable being. We saw that St. Anselm’s concept of God which helps to guide systematic theology is the concept of a greatest conceivable being, or a most perfect being. A most perfect being – a greatest conceivable being – would be a being which doesn’t exist merely contingently, but one that necessarily exists because it is obviously greater to exist necessarily than to just accidentally happen to exist.

Moreover, several of the arguments for God’s existence that we will be talking about later in this class imply the existence of a necessarily existing being. For example, the Leibnizian argument from contingency that we will talk about is that in order to explain why something exists rather than nothing there must be a metaphysically necessary being whose non-existence is impossible. Therefore that argument implies the existence of a necessary being. Or again, the moral argument that says objective moral values and duties need to have some kind of a foundation in God as the ethical ultimate, as The Good. Since many moral truths are not just contingently true but necessarily true, the foundation for morality cannot just exist in some possible worlds; it would have to exist in every possible world in which there are those moral truths. So to ground moral values we must have a being that is metaphysically necessary. Or again, there is an argument for God’s existence called the conceptualist argument for God’s existence which says that God must exist as an omniscient mind to ground mathematical and logical truths like 2+2=4. In order to ground the truth of these necessary truths you would need to have a necessarily existent being because there is no possible world in which those statements fail to be true. So if God is the ground of these logical and mathematical truths he must be as necessary as they are.[4]

It seems to me that this concept of aseity, as being a being which exists by a necessity of his own nature, is one that not only properly belongs to the concept of God as a greatest conceivable being but we actually have some good arguments for thinking that such a being exists. We will review those arguments later in the class, but I want to simply preview these at this point by saying that the notion of God as a self-existent being (one that exists by a necessity of his own nature) is one that makes good sense.

START DISCUSSION

Student: During the 1960s there was a group of so-called theologians at Emory University that talked about the death of God. Did they address any of these qualities that you just described? Did they make any attempt to undermine traditional thinking about the nature of God?

Dr. Craig: One of these theologians was Thomas J. J. Altizer who proclaimed the death of God. It is not clear the extent to which they may have simply meant that the concept of God is now dead in American culture or intellectual culture, and therefore of no use. They couldn’t have seriously entertained the idea that a being which exists a se (eternally and necessarily) could have died. That would be patently absurd. So while I am not familiar with the death-of-God theologians with respect to what they might have said about these attributes, I don’t know that they really seriously dealt with them. Clearly, the notion that God could literally cease to exist is absurd if he has these sorts of attributes.

Student: Can you please explain the relationship between aseity and eternity and necessity just one more time?

Dr. Craig: If something exists independently of everything else and exists by a necessity of its own nature then it would be impossible for it to come into being or go out of being because if it did it wouldn’t be necessary. It wouldn’t exist by a necessity of its own nature. So if something exists by a necessity of its own nature – if it is literally self-existent in that sense – it has to be permanent. That is what eternal means. The core concept of eternity is permanence. Now, there is debate that remains – does God’s permanence mean he exists everlastingly throughout infinite time, or does it mean he is outside of time altogether? That is a further debate that we will talk about. But the core concept of eternity is the idea of permanence – not coming into or going out of being. I think it is clear that that would be entailed by the idea of existing by a necessity of your own nature.

Student: In case some people are having a problem getting their mind around this existing by its very nature, I still have a problem with that, and I never could actually come to grips with it. Here is how I finally solved the fact that God does have to exist. I am not a necessary being. There is an infinite number of things that could have happened to keep me from existing. God is a necessary being in my mind because he had no beginning. Anything that has no beginning has to be necessary because nothing could have happened to prevent its creation or prevent its being here. Whereas in my case, many things could have happened to me. If something has no beginning then it has to be here.

Dr. Craig: I want to try to expand your concept of God to make it even more majestic – even richer – than what you just expressed. You certainly are right in saying that my dependence upon all these other factors show that I am not necessary in my existence. I could cease to exist easily. Therefore, if God is self-existent he will be eternal. That is right. He will be permanent in this world. But being eternal doesn’t imply necessity.[5] Necessity means that no matter which world were possible, God would be there as well.

Let’s imagine, by using these circles, different possible worlds. [Dr. Craig draws several circles on the whiteboard to represent different possible worlds.] Let’s call the actual world “Alpha.” [Dr. Craig now points to different circles on the whiteboard.] This would be a world, say, in which Bob exists. This would be a world in which, say, Bob does not exist. This would be a world in which Bob exists but Bryant Wright is not the pastor at Johnson Ferry Baptist Church. This would be a world in which Bob exists but Brad does not exist. You can see all of these would be different possible worlds.

Now, in Alpha, which is the actual world, God exists without beginning and without end. So, as you say, God is eternal in the actual world. Nothing can bring him into existence, nothing can make him go out of existence. But what about this world over here – world W’? [Dr. Craig points to the circles on the whiteboard again.] Or this world W’’? Does God exist in those worlds, too? The idea of necessity is that he is not just in this world – the actual world – but he would exist no matter which world were possible. So necessity is something that is even greater than eternality. The idea that necessity is eternality is an Aristotelian idea, but theologians in the history of thought developed this notion of God as metaphysically necessary, not just eternal, but a being whose nature is such that if it is possible it must exist.

Student: This may just indicate the limits of my intelligence, but when I start hearing about all possible world arguments, I immediately reject that. There is only one possible world and that is the one we have.

Dr. Craig: See, that is not right. If you say that then that means that everything that happens happens necessarily. You couldn’t move your little finger because that is not possible. There is only one possible world. Now, you are right, I think, in saying these other worlds don’t exist in the sense they are not actual. That is true. But they are possible. You could knock over your glass. Brad can hit you in the head. If he did then it would be a different world. So I don’t think you are really a fatalist who thinks everything is logically necessary.

Student: Whether I hit Brad or don’t hit Brad, that has nothing to do with a possible world. Those are actions within an existing world. They don’t have anything to do with another world. I can imagine a world in which the sky is orange on Thursday.

Dr. Craig: Good! OK!

Student: But that is not a possible world.

Dr. Craig: Why not? Do you think that is possible that the sky could be orange?

Student: The only way that world could exist is if I could talk God into creating that world. He obviously didn’t want that world. He didn’t create it. There is no way any other world than this one could actually occur. You can imagine all the worlds you want, but they can’t exist.

Dr. Craig: Oh, but it could! Suppose there is a possible world in which I step off of this podium.

Student: It’s the same world!

Dr. Craig: No, it is not! I didn’t do it! I prevented that world from being actual by my free choice. You are right – I think what you are wanting to say is this. There is only one world that is actual. Right! There is only one world that is actual. But, things don’t have to be this way. Otherwise, you’d think everything happens by logical necessity. You’ve got freedom, there are lots of contingencies, God could do different things. And if they were different then there would be another world that is actual, not this one. I am not saying these other worlds are actual. We agree about that. But it is possible that the world could have been different. What I am saying is, with respect to God’s necessity, no matter how the world might have been God would be there. That is a richer concept than just being eternal because God could be eternal but if the world were slightly different he might not be there at all or he might have only existed for a few years or something. So this idea of necessity – we need to get a handle on this, I think, if we are to have an adequate concept of who God is.[6] He is greater than just an eternal being.

Student: Instead of thinking that God and the world were different entities, maybe we should think that the world is a subset of God.

Dr. Craig: Be careful! You don’t want to be a pantheist or a panentheist where you say the world is part of God, because then God is not distinct from creation. Some of the verses we read this morning say that God is in the beginning and then he brought everything else into being. So the Judeo-Christian view is very different from these pantheistic or panentheistic worlds which say the world is part of God.

Student: Everything stems from God, so the world is God’s expression. So God expressed into the world – he can imagine, he can will it, and he can actualize it. Actually the world is a subset of God – the overflow of God.

Dr. Craig: Well, I would really resist that conclusion you want to draw from that. I think it would be better to say that the world is the free creation of God. That is different than “overflow.”

Student: It is like a painting is the artist’s creation. It is conceived by the artist. So the world is God’s creative work. That is a subset of God.

Dr. Craig: But it is not! The painting is not a subset of the artist. Right? The painting is not a subset of the artist.

Student: Yes! I would say.

Dr. Craig: All right, then you are using the word “subset” in a very idiosyncratic way.

Student: An expressive way.

Dr. Craig: All right, it certainly is an expression of his existence. But we have to be careful about how we define our terms. That is not the normal way “subset” is understood. “Subset” would normally mean something like this: take the set of all natural numbers: {0, 1, 2, 3 . . . }. A subset of that would be all of the even numbers: {2, 4, 6, . . .}. It belongs to the other one in that it is taken out of it. God’s relationship to the world is not like that. It is more like the artist and the painting or the sculpture that he creates.

Student: When we are talking about eternity, are all of his creations eternal? So you have plants, animals, angels. It talks about at some point Satan being in the lake of fire forever. My question is: how did we begin in one place and why don’t we end at some point? Or why don’t evil beings, or beings that were created for good but morphed into evil, why don’t they end at some point, as far as you understand in the Bible?

Dr. Craig: There is a number of questions there. The first one was whether creation is eternal. Some of the verses we read already suggest that that is not the case. “In the beginning was the Word.” John 1:1. Then it says, “All things came into being through him.” So there is a state of affairs in the actual world which is just God existing alone without anything else. Then everything else comes into being. Again in Colossians, “He is before all things, and all things hold together.” I think that means not simply that he is before them in the sense of rank but in the sense he brought these things into existence. So creation has a beginning point in the past. It is not eternal in the past. There is a beginning.

Will these things come to an end? This gets into your doctrine of immortality. Do you think that God will simply allow the creatures that he has made to lapse back into non-being? Will he just annihilate them all? He certainly would have the power to annihilate them if he wanted to.[7] But the Scripture says that, with respect to those whom Christ has claimed for himself, those who believe in him will not perish but shall have everlasting life – John 3:16. They will live forever. They will never be annihilated. They will go to be with Christ in a new heavens and new Earth.

What about the wicked? You mentioned the evil. Well, this is an issue on which Christian theologians differ. Some hold to the view that God will annihilate the wicked. They will be destroyed completely so that they cease to exist. All that will be left will be God and the redeemed. But the more traditional view, and the view I’ve defended in our section on the doctrine of the last things, is that the wicked will not be annihilated. They will be punished forever for what they’ve done. In that sense, even wicked creatures, whether demons or human persons, will not be annihilated by God but will be justly punished for what they have done during this lifetime.

Student: I have a number of thoughts. My head is exploding right now. Aside from that, draw a circle on the board that is the set “God.”

Dr. Craig: OK, God is not a set.

Student: That is correct. God is not a set. You could draw any point outside of that circle, and is that not God? You can’t do that with God.

Dr. Craig: Yeah, you can.

Student: There is no point you can draw that is not God.

Dr. Craig: Sure you can! You are not God! Bob said he’s not God!

Student: I exist in him of necessity.

Dr. Craig: No. Do you think God had to create you?

Student: No, no. That isn’t what I’m saying.

Dr. Craig: OK, then you don’t exist in him of necessity.

Student: If I had a beginning, which I did (or I believe I did – there are some people who may not agree with that but they belong to other religions), the Bible says if I accept Christ I will have no end. I will live forever with him. As far as the annihilation of the evil, I’ve gone back and I can’t picture in my wildest dreams even Adolf Hitler, as evil as he was, a fair and just God condemning him to an eternity in hell. I would think his punishment would be limited. It may be limited to having to live 20 million lives of all the people he persecuted individually one at a time, which would be a very long time. But in the end my view is God just lets him be where God has chosen not to be present.

Dr. Craig: That is though the typical concept of hell. The presence of God is utterly removed. But Hitler will still exist on that view. You are not saying he is annihilated.

Student: No, I don’t think he is going to be annihilated. But I am just saying “punished” is a word that has very specific meaning for me.

Dr. Craig: This was addressed in our section on doctrine of the last things, so let me refer you back to that section again. It is on the website if you care to look at the lessons there. But I will say briefly two things.

First, I think that we can plausibly agree that every sin only deserves a finite amount of punishment, as you said. But if a person commits an infinite number of sins then he would deserve an infinite punishment. Nobody commits an infinite number of sins in this life, obviously. But what about in the afterlife? Insofar as the denizens of hell continue to hate God and reject him, they continue to sin. So they accrue to themselves more punishment. In that sense, hell goes on forever because sinning goes on forever.

The second thing I would say is it is not clear to me that every sin does deserve only a finite punishment. I think that is true of sins like adultery and murder and things of that sort. But what about the sin of rejecting God? For the creature to shake his fist in the face of his creator and spurn him and reject him; it seems to me that that is a sin of infinite gravity and consequence, and plausibly deserves an infinite punishment.[8] If that is right, we shouldn’t think of hell primarily as punishment for the array of finite sins that we’ve committed. Christ has died for those sins. The penalty for those have been paid. Rather, hell would be the just punishment for a sin of infinite gravity and consequence which would be the creature’s rejection of God himself. So for that reason I don’t think that the idea of punishing the evil forever is an example of punishment not fitting the crime.

I would conceive of that punishment, not so much as torture racks and pinchers and hot coals, but as sequestering the wicked forever from the presence of all that is good and lovely, all that is from the presence of God himself. That is a horrible punishment, I would say.

END DISCUSSION

Let me, in the interest of time, say a few more words and then bring this subsection to a close.

If God is a self-existent being then all finite reality depends upon him for its creation. There is no other self-existent being besides God. He is unique in that sense. So everything apart from God depends upon him for its initial creation coming into being, for its present existing, and then for its future being on into the future. So reality is shot through with a radical dependence of everything upon God – for its creation, its conservation, and its future being.

An analogy to this might be the way in which a dream is sustained in your mind when you are asleep and dreaming. Your dream can be populated with all sorts of persons who are engaged in activities, doing different things, and yet the instance you awaken that dream vanishes and all those people and everything just evaporates instantly. It is gone. Obviously, I am not saying that this world is a dream. Don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying the world is a dream in the mind of God. But I am saying that it is radically dependent upon God in exactly the same way that a dream world would be dependent upon your mind. If God were to cease thinking about the universe, it would be annihilated; it would vanish in an instance.

So if there is no God, there is no universe. On the other hand, if there were no universe, God wouldn’t be affected because he is self-existent and independent. Nothing could make God cease to exist. On the contrary, everything that exists other than God depends upon God for its being. God is a being which is self-existent, eternal, and necessary, and everything else that exists is going to be contingent and dependent upon God in its being.

This understanding of God’s self-existence can help to solve two problems. First, sometimes is has been said that if God is a being, then he is just one being among others. He is just one more marble in the sack if God is a being. So God can’t be a being. I think understanding God’s self-existence enables us to see the fallacy of that reasoning. All other beings are dependent upon God for their existence. God alone is a self-existent, necessary being. Everything else that exists is a contingent, dependent being. So God is not just one more marble in the sack; rather, everything else depends upon him for its being. He is not just one being among many.

The second problem that this helps us solve is the old question, “Where did God come from?” The answer is God didn’t come from anywhere. God is a self-existent being. It is impossible for him not to exist, and he always has existed. His existence is permanent. So when you understand the concept of God as a self-existent being, you can see that this old question, “Where did God come from?” or “Who made God?” is a meaningless question. It is like saying, “Why is it that all bachelors are unmarried?” Nobody breaks his brain trying to figure out why all bachelors are unmarried. It belongs to the very concept of a bachelor to be unmarried.[9] Similarly, it belongs to the very nature of God to exist. He cannot not exist. It is impossible for him not to exist. He had no beginning; he depends upon nothing.

Those who ask the question “Where did God come from?” or “Who made God?” simply show that they haven’t understood the concept of God. Once you understand the concept of God then you can see that this question is as trivial as asking why all triangles have three corners.

What we will do next Sunday is look at the principal challenge to the doctrine of divine aseity. This comes from the quarter of Platonism. Platonists believe that there are other uncreated entities besides God – indeed, infinities of infinities of such entities – and that therefore God is not the source of the being of all things other than himself. There are uncreated entities in addition to God. Next week we will look at that challenge, and I will try to provide some answer to it.[10]



[1] 5:19

[2] 9:50

[3] 15:02

[4] 20:06

[5] 25:02

[6] 30:06

[7] 34:58

[8] 40:03

[9] 45:00

[10] Total Running Time: 46:23 (Copyright © 2015 William Lane Craig)