by Jason Dulle
For millennia philosophers maintained that the universe is eternal. The philosophical payoff of this view was that it avoided the God question. If the universe has always been, it did not need a creator. The emergence of the Big Bang theory in the early part of the 20th century, however, changed all of that. The Big Bang model successfully predicted that the universe–including all spatio-temporal-material reality–had an absolute origin at a point in the finite past, from which it expanded, and continues to expand today.
The theistic implications of this model were recognized instantly. If the universe began to exist, it seemed to require a supernatural cause (one outside the confines of the natural world). That’s why it was met with fierce opposition, and why it took several decades and many lines of empirical confirmation to become the reigning paradigm it is today. Even now, cosmogenists continue to put forth alternative models in hopes of averting the beginning of the universe, many of which are little more than exercises in metaphysical speculation, incapable of both verification and falsification.
While not friendly to an atheistic worldview, many atheists eventually made their peace with the empirical evidence, and accepted the theory. But the theistic implications of a temporally finite universe have not gone away. Anything that begins to exist requires a cause. If the universe began to exist, what caused it to exist? It could not be a natural law, because natural laws originated with the universe. It could not be self-caused, because this is incoherent. Something cannot bring itself into existence, for that would entail its existence prior to its existence.
The atheist has two options. He can either admit to the existence of an external cause of the universe, or affirm that the universe is uncaused. For most atheists the first option is out of the question. An external cause of the universe looks too much like God: immaterial, eternal, non-spatial, intelligent, and personal. That leaves them the second option. But this won’t do either. The causal principle is one of the most basic intuitions we have. Things don’t just pop into existence uncaused from nothing, so why think the universe did? If everything that begins to exist has a sufficient cause, on what grounds is the origin of the universe excepted? If one excepts it on the basis that it is impossible to have a cause prior to the first event, they are guilty of begging the question in favor of atheism, for they are assuming that physical reality is the only reality, and thus the only possible cause of the Big Bang must be a physical cause. But it is entirely plausible that the external cause of the Big Bang was an eternal, non-physical reality. The only way to demonstrate that the universe cannot have a cause, then, is to demonstrate that the existence of an eternal, non-physical reality like God is impossible. But the very beginning of the universe is an argument for such a being’s existence!
Some atheists, recognizing the problem the principle of causal sufficiency makes for the atheistic worldview, cling to an eternal universe despite the scientific and philosophic evidence to the contrary. They recognize that it is nonsense to think something can come from nothing, uncaused. Something can only come from something. From nothing, nothing comes. If there was ever a time when nothing existed (as the Big Bang model predicts), then of necessity there would be nothing still, because nothing has no potential to become something. And yet there is something, so there could not have been a time when nothing existed. As a matter of historical fact, there can’t ever be a time when there was nothing. Something must exist eternally. If something must exist eternally, and the universe is not that something, then something resembling the God of theism must exist. Rather than admit the obvious-that this is evidence for the existence of God-these atheists reject the scientific and philosophical evidence for a finite universe, and assert that the universe must exist eternally.
What’s important to see, here, is that this sort of atheist is not being intellectually honest with the evidence. He has an a priori philosophical and volitional commitment to atheism, and that commitment biases him to such an extent that he will not accept the destination to which the rational evidence leads. Only theism is consistent with the evidence, and consistent with reason. While I commend atheists who reject the notion that the universe could come into being from nothing totally uncaused as an irrational leap of faith, I admonish them to go one step further, and recognize that the principle that something only comes from something, combined with the scientific an philosophical evidence for the finitude of the universe, supports theism, not atheism. To be consistent and honest with the data, they should accept the finitude of the universe, and admit that its existence requires a personal and supernatural cause.