What Does It Mean to Ask if God Exists?

Joseph Minich
Wednesday, February 24th 2021

In the previous post, I discussed how modern people tend to think of God as something like the “first gear” in the cosmic series of gears. This gestures toward a truth, but one has more closely approximated the classical vision of God when we see that God is that in virtue of which there is any possibility of gears in the first place. We will be able to understand this point better by grappling with the meaning of the term “existence.” What does it mean to ask and answer the question of whether or not God “exists?”

For some, the answer appears to be obvious. To ask if God exists is to ask if He is real, has being, is a “difference-making” agent in the world, etc. And certainly any positing of God’s existence must include these things in some way. However, this is a somewhat misleading way to frame the question. To query concerning the existence of God is not quite the same thing as asking about the existence of, say, Bigfoot or one’s Aunt Esther. Why not? Because in these cases, we can distinguish the essence (or “whatness”) of the things under consideration, and their existence (or “thisness”). That is to say, both Bigfoot and one’s aunt are the kinds of things that might or might not exist. Said differently, a world with their presence is just as coherent (from our perspective) as a world with their absence.

This is not the case with God. As noted previously, to speak about “God” is not simply to speak of that final “explainer of things,” but rather that “in light of which” both things and their explanations are even imaginable. And fortunately, it does not take a great deal of thought to see that something must play this role. For almost everything we posit before our imagination, we can also imagine its negation. That is to say, we can coherently imagine its non-existence —as in the case of Sasquatch. But there is necessarily something (for lack of a better word) about which we cannot coherently imagine non-existence. And that is “being” or “existence” as such. We could coherently scissor away from our mental universe the world of humans, animals, planets, galaxies, and even our particular cosmos. But we cannot finally negate the final fact of facticity itself, the ontological priority of being to non-being. Something, in short—being or existence itself—possesses “necessary existence.” We cannot coherently imagine its non-existence, for that would entail the non-existence of existence as such.

In one sense, as likewise noted earlier, this is tacitly admitted by all. But “existence itself” is simply conflated with something that isn’t God. So the quantum field, for instance, is sometimes claimed to possess the character of “necessary existence.” But, and now we see more clearly why, this is not a good candidate for necessary existence because we can coherently imagine the non-existence of the quantum field, or a radically different quantum field playing the same role in some way. Not so with existence itself. In the classical view, God is subsistent being Himself—the act of existence in its full plentitude—the act of existing in which all creatures finitely participate.

But there is more. We come to realize that existence is an act. Our language preserves this in the verbal and participial modes of “to be” and “being” respectively. The etymology of the term “exist,” likewise, means to “stand out.” Stand out from what? To stand out from the abyss of nothing. To “exist” is precisely to actively stand out in the community of beings (as W. Norris Clarke puts it), and it is only by means of this act that anything else is possible. For this reason, Aquinas calls existence the “perfection of perfections” because it is metaphysically and logically prior to all other perfections – that without which they are not achievable or thinkable.

And yet, likewise for Aquinas, the act of existence possessed by each creature is a “gift,” a donation of God’s own act of living in a creaturely mode. That is to say, while each finite creature – and the whole world of really existing things – possesses an act of existence, this act (the “event” of their being) is not something they give to themselves, but rather something that is given to them. And it is precisely here that we see how this chain of donated “life” cannot be endlessly deferred. Livingness must simply “be” somewhere.

And yet here we can run into a mistake. In our attempt to understand the meaning of existence, we might be tempted to think of God’s fullness of existence as best seen at the end of a long series of “negations.” That is, once you “cut away” all creaturely perfections, you are simply left with “existence itself” and “this we call God” (as the good doctor says). There is a better way to think about this, and it is one of the chief insights of Thomas (here mediated through the aforementioned Clarke). Rather than defining God as the negation of creation, we should rather define creation as the negation of God’s full act of existence. That is to say, all creatures are “limited participations” in the fullness of God’s singular and necessary act of existence (which act just is God, considered in a certain way). Here’s another way to think about it. What we are (our essence) is a limitation of the fullness of existence. So, in the case of all real beings, the fullness of existence is manifested just this far and no further. The essence determines the boundaries within which the fullness of existence (the full range of what might be) is manifested just this way. So while there is some truth in portraying our vision of God as what remains after we “cut away” creaturely limitations, what we are left with is not an abstraction, but rather its opposite. God is the most substantial and concrete thing! God cannot change because He is purely act-ual, fully living and realized without limits. It is rather we who are an abstraction of God, a “copy” of his perfections in a finite hue – suspended in His free act of self-donation.

There is mystery here, of course. To say that our act of existence is a finite participation in the fullness of God’s act of existence is not to clarify precisely “how” God is related to this world of limitation. Unlike the gnostic tradition, Christians never thought that such finite participation was intrinsically corrupted. And unlike the pantheists, the classical tradition has also worked hard to avoid conflating the being of God with the being of creation. And so, to imagine God’s self-donation should not be to imagine God “carving Himself up into pieces” to dole out into finite forms. Rather, we are suspended in God’s life in the way that (analogously speaking) our own thoughts are suspended in our life. They are free self-creations in one sense, but they are also “other than us” in another.

It is crucial to note, of course, that this description of God (using only the tools of philosophical analysis) is less rich than the description of God that we find in the Bible. Humans have always had access to truths about God that did not depend upon making precisely these distinctions in any formal way. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that “something like” these distinctions show up in an analogous way within the very different cognitive environment of the Bible.

While you are not likely to find the distinction between essence and existence in the Ancient Near East in any formulaic way, it is nevertheless interesting to think about the manner in which God portrays Himself as the “Living One.” God’s own name, “I AM,” would appear to highlight the intimate fusion of God’s “what” with His “existence.” God is the one who just is. And it is for precisely this reason that, in the temple, dead things cannot bear the presence of the Almighty. Not simply the immoral, but anything that approximates deadness (blemish, defective skin, etc), or anything that involves a privation of the fullness of life (castration, etc), precludes one from access to the temple. Of course, there was animal death in the temple, but precisely to substitute for the otherwise consuming effects that God’s covenantal presence would have had on the “not quite truly unblemished” priests!

God often reveals Himself in the mode of a fire (in a cloud). This fire could alternatively consume or consummate a creature. To be near Him is either to be consumed or to be made more fully living, as when the face of Moses (or the glorified body of our Lord) take(s) on a new vibrancy and life. And indeed, it is not surprising that the ancients tended toward the worship of the sun. Not only does it have obvious cosmological priority, but there is also something intriguing about the fire that self-subsists. In our experience, fire is the most transient of things, the least “stable” of the elements, and yet also (in some way) the most “active” of them. Indeed, one may say that fire is a very good image of “pure actuality.” And yet, precisely in not consuming the bush (for instance), God communicates that His is the kind of activity and life that does not subsist on anything. Even the sun, God constantly reminded Israel, is an emergent creature. God is that Living One whose life cannot be snuffed, and in whom all else live. And precisely as Life Himself, the covenantal presence of God consumes what is deadly and consummates what is living.

In short, there appears to be a similar “motion of the mind” nascent in the authoritative biblical metaphors and the formal articulation of the meaning of existence in the language of philosophy. Minimally, these are different ways of approximating some singular truth relative to different circumstances and specific questions. And yet the biblical emphasis on “livingness” enrichens our philosophical picture. Because to really consider what it means that God is the full act of existence, the full plenitude of all perfection is to move toward trembling. Horror films play precisely on our discomfort with “alive” things. The less predictable, the more free, the less tied to social convention, the less I can anticipate a thing, the worse. One might even say, “the deader the better.” We are uncomfortable with full livingness because it both reveals our comparative deadness and our comparative dependence. Only the receiving hands of faith can endure the approach of a fully living God because only they signal the creature who accepts the divine purge.

In any case, just as an ancient Hebrew would not have thought of God’s “livingness” as just a more intense form of human life, or of the great “I AM” as suspended in some deeper form of “AM-ness,” so should we not think of God’s act of existence as just a more intense form of “standing out” from the abyss of nothing among a bunch of others who possess an act of existence. Rather, God is the one whose essence precisely is His act of existence. The difference between God and ourselves is precisely that our “standing out” is over against an abyss of nothing. God’s “standing out,” on the other hand, is not over against anything. He just is His own act of being fully alive, transcending both “existence” and “non-existence” as we experience them. Or more to the point, God’s act of being alive is (of necessity) metaphysically prior to any act of existence that does not possess the fullness of existence—that is to say, to all limited creatures.

The tradition on which I am drawing in making these claims, not surprisingly, has a number of critics. For all the manner in which I’m attempting to distinguish God and creatures, does the resultant picture of God leave us with a faceless “God of the philosophers” who looks rather different from the living God of Scripture? Moreover, why is it still possible—even with these matters clarified—to doubt the existence of this elusive entity we sometimes call “God?” For the rest of this series, I will seek to ask and at least hazard an answer to such questions. I hope to show that our knowledge of God is deeply enriched by moving through them with care.

Joseph Minich (Ph.D, The University of Texas at Dallas), is a Teaching Fellow at The Davenant Institute. He is the author of Enduring Divine Absence.

Read next: [ part 1 ] [ part 3 ] [ part 4 ] [ part 5 ] [ part 6 ]

Image: Domenico Fetti. From 1588 to 1623. Venice. Moses and the Burning Bush. KHM Vienna. Photo by jean louis mazieres, Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic {{CC BY-NC-SA 2.0}}. Cropped by MR.

Wednesday, February 24th 2021

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

J. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church