A Classic Debate on the Existence of God

November 1994
University of Colorado at Boulder

Dr. William Lane Craig & Dr. Michael Tooley

Dr. Craig's Opening Statement

I want to say how pleased I am to be debating Dr. Tooley. Iím sure that many of you will never hear a more powerful case for atheism than the case you will hear presented tonight. And I only hope I can do as good a job arguing the case for the existence of God.

Now in tonight's debate I'm going to defend two basic contentions:

I. There are no good reasons to think that atheism is true, and
II. There are good reasons to think that theism is true.

Let's look at the first major contention, that there are no good reasons to think that atheism is true. Atheist philosophers have tried for centuries to disprove the existence of God. But no one has been able to come up with a convincing argument. So rather than attack straw men at this point, Iím going to wait to hear Dr. Tooley's answer to the following question: What is the evidence that atheism is true?

Let's turn then to my second basic contention, that there are good reasons to think that theism is true.

Now I'm not claiming that I can prove that God exists with some kind of mathematical certainty. Iím just claiming that on balance the evidence is such that theism is more plausible than not. Let me present, therefore, six reasons why I think itís more plausible that God exists than that atheism is true. Weíll start with the more abstract and gradually get more concrete.

1. God provides the best explanation for the existence of abstract entities. In addition to tangible objects like people and chairs and mountains and trees, philosophers have noticed that there also appear to be abstract objects, like numbers and sets and propositions and properties. These sorts of things seem to have a conceptual reality rather like ideas. And yet itís obvious that theyíre not just ideas in some human mind. So what is the metaphysical foundation for such abstract entities? The theist has a plausible answer for that question: they are grounded in the mind of God. Alvin Plantinga, one of Americaís foremost philosophers, explains:

It seems plausible to think of numbers as dependent upon or even constituted by intellectual activity. But there are too many of them to arise as a result of human intellectual activity. We should therefore think of them as . . . the concepts of an unlimited mind: a divine mind.{1}

At the most abstract level, then, theism provides a plausible metaphysical foundation for the existence of abstract objects. And thatís the first reason why I think it's plausible to believe in God.

2. God provides the best explanation of why the universe exists rather than nothing. Have you ever asked yourself why anything at all exists, or where the universe came from? Typically, atheists have said that the universe is just eternal, and thatís all. But surely this is unreasonable. Just think about it for a minute.

If the universe never had a beginning, then that means that the number of past events is infinite. But mathematicians recognize that the notion of an actually infinite number of things leads to self-contradictions unless you impose some wholly arbitrary rules to prevent this. For example, what is infinity minus infinity? Well, mathematically you get self-contradictory answers. This shows that infinity is just an idea in your mind, not something that exists in reality.

David Hilbert, perhaps the greatest mathematician in this century, states,

The infinite is nowhere to be found in reality. It neither exists in nature, nor provides a legitimate basis for rational thought. ... The role that remains for the infinite to play is solely that of an idea.{2}

But that entails that since past events are not just ideas but are real, the number of past events must be finite. Therefore the series of past events cannot go back forever; rather the universe must have begun to exist.

This conclusion has been confirmed by remarkable discoveries in astronomy and astrophysics. The astrophysical evidence indicates that the universe began to exist in a great explosion called the Big Bang about fifteen billion years ago. Physical space and time were created in that event, as well as all the matter and energy in the universe.

Therefore, as the Cambridge astronomer Fred Hoyle points out, the Big Bang Theory requires the creation of the universe from nothing. This is because as one goes back in time he reaches a point at which, in Hoyleís words; the universe was "shrunk down to nothing at all."{3} Thus what the Big Bang model requires is that the universe began to exist and was created out of nothing.

Now this tends to be very awkward for the atheist thinker. For as Anthony Kenny of Oxford University says, "A proponent of the [Big Bang] theory, at least if he is an atheist, must believe that ... the universe came from nothing and by nothing."{4} but thatís a pretty hard pill to swallow. Out of nothing, nothing comes. So where did the universe come from? Why does it exist instead of just nothing? There must have been a cause which brought the universe into being. And from the very nature of the case, this cause must be an uncaused, changeless, timeless, and immaterial being which created the universe.

Isn't it incredible that the Big Bang theory thus confirms what the Christian theist has always believed, that in the beginning, god created the universe? Now, I simply put it to you: Which do you think is more probable, that the Christian theist is right, or that the universe just popped into existence uncaused out of nothing? I, at least, don't have any problem assessing these probabilities.

3. God provides the best explanation for the complex order in the universe. During the last thirty years, scientists have discovered that the existence of intelligent life depends upon a complex and delicate balance of initial conditions that are simply given in the Big Bang itself. We now know that life-prohibiting universes are vastly more probable than life-permitting universes like ours.

How much more probable? Before I share with you an estimation, let me just give you some numbers to give you a feel for the odds. The number of seconds in the history of the universe is about 1018, ten followed by eighteen zeros. The number of subatomic particles in the entire universe is said to be about 1080 .

Now with those numbers in mind consider the following: Donald Page, one of America's eminent cosmologists, has calculated the odds of our universe existing as one chance out of ten to the power of ten to the one hundred and twenty-fourth power ---a number which is so inconceivable that to call it astronomical would be a wild understatement.{5} Robert Jastrow, the head of NASAís Goddard Institute of Space Studies, has called this the most powerful evidence for the existence of God ever to come out of science.{6} Once again the view that the Christian theist has always held, that there is an intelligent designer of the universe, seems to be much more plausible than the atheistic interpretation.

4. God provides the best explanation for objective moral values in the world. If God does not exist, then objective moral values do not exist. Many theists and atheists alike concur on this point. For example, the late J.L. Mackie of Oxford University, one of the most influential atheists of our time, admitted,

If ... there are ... objective values, they make the existence of a god more probable than it would have been without them. Thus we have ... a defensible argument from morality to the existence of a god.{7}

But in order to avoid God's existence, Mackie therefore denied that objective moral values exist. He wrote, "It is easy to explain this moral sense as a natural product of biological and social evolution."{8} Professor Michael Ruse, a philosopher of science at the University of Guelph, agrees. He explains,

Morality is a biological adaptation no less than are hands and feet and teeth . . .. Considered as a rationally justifiable set of claims about an objective something, [ethics] is illusory. I appreciate that when somebody says, 'Love thy neighbor as thyself,í they think they, are referring above and beyond themselves, . . . Nevertheless, . . . such reference is truly without foundation, Morality is just an aid to survival and reproduction, and any deeper meaning is illusory . . . .{9}

Friedrich Nietzsche, the great atheist of the last century who proclaimed the death of God, understood that the death of God meant the destruction of all meaning and value in life '{10}I think that Friedrich Nietzsche was right. But we've got to be very careful here. The question here is not: Must we believe in God in order to live a moral life? I'm not claiming that we must. Nor is the question: Can we recognize objective moral values without believing in God? I think we can. Rather, the question is: If God does not exist, do objective moral values exist?

Like Mackie and Ruse, I just donít see any reason to think that in the absence of God the morality evolved by Homo sapiens is objective. After all, if there is no God, then what's so special about human beings? They're just accidental by-products of nature which have evolved relatively recently on an infinitesimal speck of dust called the planet Earth, lost somewhere in a hostile and mindless universe, and which are doomed to perish individually and collectively in a relatively short time. On the atheistic view, some action, say, rape, may not be socially advantageous and so in the course of human development has became taboo. But that does absolutely nothing to prove that rape is really morally wrong. On the atheistic view, if you can escape the social consequences, thereís nothing really wrong with your raping someone. And thus without God there is no absolute right and wrong which imposes itself on our conscience.

But the fact is that objective values do exist, and we all know it. There is no more reason to deny the objective reality of moral values than the objective reality of physical objects. Actions like rape, torture, child abuse-aren't just socially unacceptable behavior. They're moral abominations. Even Ruse himself admits, "The man who says it is morally acceptable to rape little children is just as mistaken as the man who says 2+2=5,"{11} Some things are really wrong. Similarly, love, equality, self-sacrifice are really good. But if objective values cannot exist without God and objective values do exist, then it follows logically and inescapably that God exists.

5. God provides the best explanation for the historical facts concerning the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The historical person Jesus of Nazareth was a remarkable individual. New Testament critics have reached something of a consensus that the historical Jesus came on the scene with an unprecedented sense of divine authority, the authority to stand and speak in God's place. That's why the Jewish leadership instigated his crucifixion on the charge of blasphemy. He claimed that in himself the Kingdom of God had come, and as visible demonstrations of this fact he carried out a ministry of miracle working and exorcisms.

But the supreme confirmation of his claim was his resurrection from the dead. If Jesus really did rise from the dead, then it would seem that we have a divine miracle on our hands and thus evidence for the existence of God.

It seems to me that there are three main historical facts that support the resurrection of Jesus: his empty tomb, Jesus' appearances alive after his death, and the very origin of the Christian faith. Let's look very briefly at each one of these.

First, the evidence indicates that Jesusí tomb was found empty on Sunday morning by a group of his women followers. According to Jacob Kremer, an Austrian scholar who has specialized in the study of the resurrection, "By far, most [scholars] hold firmly to the reliability of the biblical statements about the empty tomb."{12} And he lists twenty-eight prominent scholars in support. I can think of at least sixteen more that he neglected to mention.

According to New Testament critic D.H. Van Daalen, it is extremely difficult to object to the empty tomb on historical grounds; those who deny it do so on the basis of theological or philosophical assumptions," {13} but assumptions may simply have to be changed in light of the facts.

Secondly, the evidence indicates that on separate occasions different individuals and groups saw appearances of Jesus alive after his death. According to the late Norman Perrin of the University of Chicago, "The more we investigate the traditions with regard to the appearances, the firmer the rock begins to appear upon which they are based."{14} These appearances were physical and bodily and were witnessed not only by believers, but also by unbelievers, skeptics, and even enemies.

And thirdly, the very origin of the Christian faith implies the reality of the resurrection. We all know that Christianity sprang into being in the middle of the first century. Well, where did it come from? Why did it arise?

Well, all scholars agree that it came into being because the disciples believed that God had raised Jesus from the dead. And they proclaimed this message everywhere they went. But where in the world did they come up with that outlandish belief?

If you deny that Jesus really did rise from the dead, then you've got to explain the origin of the disciples' belief in terms of either Christian influences' or Jewish influences. Now obviously it couldn't have come from Christian influences for the simple reason that there wasn't any Christianity yet. But neither can it be explained by Jewish influences. For the Jewish concept of resurrection was radically different than Jesus' resurrection. As the renowned New Testament scholar Joachim Jeremias puts it, "Nowhere does one find in the literature [of ancient Judaism] anything comparable to the resurrection of Jesus."{15} Apart from the resurrection of Jesus, therefore, there simply are no antecedent, historical factors that would explain the origin of the disciplesí belief.

Attempts to explain away these three great facts, like "the disciples stole the body," or "Jesus wasn't really dead," have been universally rejected by contemporary scholarship. The simple fact is that there just is no plausible naturalistic explanation of these three facts. Therefore it seems to me we are amply justified in believing that Jesus rose from the dead and was who He claimed to be. But that entails that God exists.

And finally: 6. God can be immediately known and experienced. This isn't really an argument for God's existence; rather it's the claim that you can know that God exists wholly apart from arguments simply by immediately experiencing Him. This was the way that people in the Bible knew God, as Professor John Hick explains:

God was known to them as a dynamic will interacting with their own wills, a sheer given reality as inescapably to be reckoned with as a destructive storm and life-giving sunshine. . . They did not think of God as an inferred entity but as an experienced reality . . .. To them God was not . . . an idea adopted by the mind, but the experiential reality which gave significance to their lives.{16}

Now if this is the case, then there's a real danger that arguments for the existence of God could actually distract oneís attention from God Himself. If you're sincerely seeking God, then God will make His existence evident to you. The New Testament promises, "Draw near to God and He will draw near to you."{17} We mustnít so concentrate on the arguments that we fail to bear the inner voice of God to our own hearts. For those who listen, God becomes an immediate reality in their lives.

In conclusion, then, we have yet to see tonight any reasons to think that God does not exist, and we have seen six reasons to believe that God does exist. Together these reasons constitute a powerful cumulative case for the existence of God. Now if Dr. Tooley wants us to believe atheism instead, then he must first tear down all six of the reasons that I gave in favor of God's existence and then in their place present a case of his own as to why atheism is true. Unless and until he does that, I hope that we can agree that theism is the more plausible worldview.


{1}Alvin Plantinga, "Two Dozen (or So) Theistic Arguments," Paper presented at the 33rd Annual Philosophy Conference, Wheaton College, October 23-25, 1986.

{2}David Hilbert, "On the Infinite," in Philosophy of Mathematics, ed. with an Introduction by Paul Benacerraf and Hillary Putnam (Englewood Cliffs, NJ.: Prentice-Hall, 1964), pp. 139, 141,

{3}Fred Hoyle, Astronomy and Cosmology (San Francisco: W.H. Freeman, 1975), p, 658.

{4}Anthony Kenny, The Five Ways: St. Thomas Aquinasí Proofs of Godís Existence (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), p. 66.

{5}Page's estimation is to be found in L. Stafford Betty and Bruce Cordell, "God and Modern Science: New Life for the Teleological Argument"' International Philosophical Quarterly 27 (1987): 416. In fact, as Page explained to me in personal conversation, Betty and Cordell get the number too low, misinterpreting 1010(124) to mean (1010)124, when in fact Page calculated 10(10(124)), an incomprehensibly huge number.

{6}Robert Jastrow, "The Astronomer and God," in The Intellectuals Speak Out About God, ed. Roy Abraham Varghese (Chicago: Regenery Gateway, 1984), p. 22.

{7}J.L. Mackie, The Miracle of Theism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982), pp. 115-6.

{8}Ibid., pp., 117-8.

{9}Micahael Ruse, "Evolutionary Theory and Christian Ethics," in The Darwinian Paradigm (London: Routledge, 1989), pp. 262-9.

{10}Friedrich Nietzsche, "The Gay Science," in The Portable Nietzsche, trans. and ed. W. Kaufmann (New York: Viking, 1954), p. 95.

{11}Michael Ruse, Darwinism Defended (London: Addison-Wesley, 1982), p. 2715.

{12}Jacob Kremer, Die 0sterevangelien-Geschichlen um Geschichte (Stuttgart: Katholisches Bibelwerk, 1977), pp. 49-50. Kremer uses the word "Exegeten," which I render as "scholars," since the literal "exegetes" would have been unfamiliar to students in the audience

{13}D. H. Van Daalen, The Real Resurrection (London: Collins, 1972), p, 41.

{14}Norman Perrin, The Resurrection According to Matthew, Mark, and Luke (Philadelphia: Fortres, 1974), p. 80.

{15}Joachim Jeremias, "Die älteste Schicht der Osterüfiberlieferung," in Resurrexit, ed. Edouard Dhanis (Rome: Editrice Libreria Vaticana, 1974), p. 194.

{16}John Hick, "Introduction," in The Existence of God, A John Hick, Problems of Philosophy Series (New York: Macmillan Co., 1964), pp. 13-14.

{17}James 4. 8,


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