In my title, the word, “proof,” is in quotation marks, because this article is not intended as a strict proof for God’s existence. Many may well not be impressed by the argument at all. Still, it may have some merit, since it might at least give skeptics, agnostics, and atheists some pause for thought.
Most children are taught in their early years to believe in that fictional character who lives at the North Pole. Indeed, like St. Thomas Aquinas’s own Five Ways to prove God’s existence, a similar such set of arguments has even been posed for proving Santa Claus’s existence, using a “Thomistic” approach.i
Most young children come to believe in Santa’s existence, even though the stories of how he operates on Christmas Eve cause some puzzlement on the part of a few believers. After all, they think, “Would their parents actually lie to them?” Nonetheless, over time, an evil skepticism begins to lead some to doubt certain details, and finally, even to doubt the existence of Santa altogether.
His story’s coherence seems increasingly questionable. Can reindeer really fly, when they don’t have wings? Isn’t he just too fat to fit down most chimneys? How could he possibly visit every home with children on the planet in just a few hours? Of course, such doubts ought not be mentioned to younger children, lest their innocence be corrupted!
Finally, the sad truth dawns – at least for older children and adults: Santa simply does not exist. Perhaps, his story is reframed in terms of an ancient bishop, Saint Nicholas, whose exploits seem more credible. Sadly, it is now all too clear that the essential attributes of Santa Claus are simply not coherent. The fantasy of the Jolly Old Elf falls of its own weight in a volley of face-saving ex post facto denials, like, “I always knew that he really could not fit down a chimney and that no one could drink all that hot chocolate and survive.”
THE PARALLEL TO GOD
My thesis is simple. The classical conception of God is often attacked as essentially incoherent, and thus, unbelievable. Just like Santa Claus, God is accused of being merely an incoherent myth that all should abandon upon reaching intellectual maturity. Theistic inconsistencies and absurdities are said to abound. So, let us look at some major divine attributes according to classical theism and raise the typical objections. Possible defenses will be offered as well.
- Objection: God is claimed to be a pure spirit, but how can a spiritual entity give what it does not have, namely, the positive reality of physical substance?
Reply: Being physical is actually a limitation on being. So, God is causing the positive perfections of things, while physical things exist solely with the limitations of time and space.
- Objection: God is supposed to be absolutely simple: not composed of parts, principles, or things. But the more perfect things we experience entail greater complexity. So a simple God would be imperfect.
Reply: More complex physical things are more perfect, but among spiritual beings, it is God’s lack of composition, even between essence and existence, that enables him to have the perfection of existence without any limitation, that is, to be the infinitely-perfect Infinite Being.
- Objection: God is supposed to be all good. But he both permits evil to exist and even causes it through punishments. So God must not be all good.
Reply: God is so good and so perfect that he permits evil to exist, and brings greater good out of it.ii Besides, even atheist J.L. Mackie finally admits that Alvin Plantinga’s free will defense explains how evil can be logically consistent with God’s goodness.iii
- Objection: God is the Infinite Being. But other beings than God exist, so he must not possess all possible being.
Reply: All perfections of being found in creatures come from God as First Cause. So, this does not limit God’s being, but merely shows his being or perfection includes all that which is found in creatures.
- Objection: Unicity means there is only one God. But how do we know that creation was not made and governed by a committee, as David Hume suggests?
Reply: Since God is infinite, if there were two of him, they must differ. If they differ, one lacks what the other has – meaning one is merely another finite being. Logically, there can be solely one Infinite Being. All the rest must be finite and not God.
- Objection: Omniscience means God knows everything. But he cannot know future events caused by free will, since they cannot be predicted by knowing present reality. So he lacks omniscience.
Reply: God exists outside of time in his eternal “now.” So, he knows all things – past, present, and future – by his knowledge of vision.iv He need not predict future events, but rather, “sees” even future free choices taking place in his “present.”
- Objection: Omnipotence means God can do or make anything. But he cannot make another God or a rock bigger than he can lift. Nor can he do evil. So he is not all powerful.
Reply: Such examples are contradictions in being, which are not real “things,” since a thing is something that can actually exist. Thus, nothing limits God’s omnipotence, since God can do or make any “thing.”
- Objection: God is immutable and eternal. But, if God cannot change, that is a limitation on his infinite being. Besides the world changes through time, so his knowledge of it must change as well.
Reply: God already possesses all existential perfections, so he does not need to change to become more perfect. Being eternal, God is outside time and knows creation all at once, even in its temporal progression – which is a limit on creatures, not on God.
- Objection: God is omnipresent, meaning he is present in all things. But that would amount to pantheism, since it would identify God with the world.
Reply: God is present in all things, but only as a cause is present to its effects by way of creative power. Since a cause is an extrinsic sufficient reason to its effects, God cannot be identical to his physical creatures. Nor, as a pure spirit, is he physically locatable.
- Objection: God is a person, with intellect and will, who can love his creatures. These are anthropomorphisms, whereby we mistakenly make God into our image. Clearly, a transcendent deity would not be constrained by such humanlike properties.
Reply: No, these are perfections found in creatures that must come from the Creator, who possesses them, since he could not give what he does not have. Given the divine simplicity, God not only has these properties, but he is them by his very essence. Thus, in God intellect, will, and all activity are identical with the divine substance itself. Yes, God really is love.
Objection: I will now consider just one central Christian theological concept, not because it is theological, but because (1) it is a major claim about God in human history and (2) it poses a major challenge to the coherence of God’s nature. I refer to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, which appears to conflict with (1) divine simplicity and (2) the belief that there is only one true God.
Christians claim that God is somehow three in one: a single being, yet three distinct persons. Small wonder that both our Jewish and Muslim brethren view this doctrine as little more than placing a thin veil over blatant polytheism! It sounds clearly like belief in three Gods, not one.
Reply: It took about three centuries to settle on proper doctrinal language. By then, Christian theology employed a distinction between “nature” or “substance” and “person” to avoid evident contradiction: God is three distinct persons in one divine substance or nature.
As to the Trinity’s metaphysical possibility, it can be illustrated by analogy to our own human consciousness. For, within my single act of consciousness, there is a real relational distinction between (1) myself as knower and (2) myself, as object of a self-reflective cognitive act.
Thus, while my act of knowing is a single spiritual act, this distinction between terms within my consciousness shows that there can be really distinct terms within the same spiritual act. Thus it is that the internal divine processions may be compared with human self-knowledge and self-love as spiritual activity having distinct terms which, it is solemnly defined, constitute really distinct Persons that, nonetheless, possess the same substantial nature such that they are identical in all other aspects.v
Thus, given the above explanation of the metaphysical possibility of the Trinity, God retains absolute simplicity, since he is composed of neither things, nor parts, nor even principles. Not things, since the divine Persons possess the same, unique divine substance; not parts, since, being spiritual, God has no physical parts; and, not even principles, since the terms of the internal divine processions possess an identical nature – a nature which, as First Cause and Pure Act, has not even the essence/existence composition found in every creature. Moreover, since the Trinity of Persons in God entails but a single substance and since, as shown in point five above, there can be but one Infinite Being or God, the charge of polytheism is refuted.
This article’s aim is not merely to show that it makes more sense to believe in God than in Santa Claus. That would hardly be much of an achievement. Still, very few adults believe in Santa, whereas belief in God is widespread among adults.
Santa has the problem of numerous highly debatable properties, such as flying reindeer – one with an illuminating nose, the ability of the obese to descend chimneys, visiting billions of homes in just a few hours, and a pile of ill-paid elves making toys. But God also suffers highly incredible properties, many needing explanation in early Christianity, since Scripture mentions them without philosophical proof.
My central hypothesis is that, if such an incredible entity as God does not actually exist, his concept ought to readily fall apart under examination as does poor Santa Claus’s. There should be a number of clear, unequivocal, unanswerable paths showing that God’s nature is totally incoherent and self-contradictory.
But God’s concept is at least defensibly coherent.
Now I realize that many skeptics will reject the defenses of this or that or all divine attributes. I will be shocked if they do not instantly claim that the God of classical theism has already been exposed repeatedly as incoherent and self-contradictory.
But, that is not to the point. The point is that intellectually rigorous defenses exist.
There is no way to explore every alleged divine attribute in this short piece, but I have considered the main ones above.
As stated earlier, I do not offer all this is a genuine proof of God’s existence. Still, it is very curious how God’s complex and mind-bending conception is not able to be laughed out of court at first blush, especially in light of all the criticisms that have been launched against belief in such a being.
Skeptics will probably have a field day deconstructing the point and counter-point arguments about divine attributes offered above. They are not intended as complete arguments, since each one could take a complete paper in itself to properly flesh out with scholarly precision and force. That is not my point.
The much broader point I am making is that the classical concept of God’s nature is highly complex and unexpected. Also unexpected would be that such an unbelievable God would be so coherent as to be believable to many, even after scholarly debate.
I leave it to readers to draw their own inevitably radically-diverse conclusions.
ii Summa Theologiae, I, q. 2, a. 3, ad. 1.
iv Summa Theologiae, I, q. 14, a. 9, c.
v Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma – 6th ed. (B. Herder Book Company, 1964), 75.