Atheism’s Greatest Conundrum

The origin of the universe is the greatest conundrum facing atheism. How did the physical universe come into existence in the beginning? Where did it come from? By what processes?

Atheism’s whole worldview is founded upon the presupposition that nothing outside of nature exists. Thus, everything that happens must have a physical, natural cause. But this presents a problem when the origin of the universe is contemplated. Most cosmologists now accept that the physical universe has not always existed. A number of landmark scientific discoveries over the last century have shown that the whole universe, including all physical matter and the “laws” that govern the operation of that matter, came into existence at a point in time and space in the distant past. This concept that the universe had a beginning, represents a complete reversal of the belief in its eternal existence which science had passionately maintained for over 2,000 years. Dr Stephen Hawking (1942 – 2018), in a lecture published on his website, commented on this reversal:

“All the evidence seems to indicate, that the universe has not existed forever, but that it had a beginning. This is probably the most remarkable discovery of modern cosmology.”

But if atheism posits that nothing exists outside of the natural universe, then we are faced with the inescapable conclusion that the universe came into existence out of nothing. Many atheist scientists have conceded this point. For example, Dr Quentin Smith, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Western Michigan University, in a debate with William Lane Craig, stated:

“The universe came from nothing, by nothing for nothing.”

But this poses a huge problem for atheists. How can something come from nothing? The physical universe cannot have created itself out of nothing. The only logical conclusion we are left with is that something orSomeone OUTSIDE the physical universe created it; Someone who exists beyond the realm of physical of physical matter and its associated laws.

This, of course, is precisely the message of the Bible: that a supernatural, transcendent God, who exists beyond the bounds of time, space and matter, created the physical universe. This is a perfectly logical explanation in the sense that there is nothing logically inconsistent with this line of reasoning.

Atheists, on the other hand, have a much more difficult mountain to climb. By rejecting the biblical explanation of a transcendent, supernatural creator God, they must come up with an explanation of how the physical universe could have popped into existence by means of purely natural causes. To date, all attempts at providing an answer to this conundrum have involved simply moving the goal posts further back. For example, some scientists speak of pre-existing quantum forces and energies that might have created all physical matter. This of course, begs the question, “Where did those forces and energies come from?” The atheist must then either propose that these forces were eternally existent or were themselves created by something even more ancient, which then moves the goal posts back yet another step.

The proposition of eternally pre-existing forces or an eternally existing universe, even one of pure quantum energy, has some serious philosophical flaws to it. Al-Ghazali, a Persian philosopher in the Middle Ages, proposed this simple philosophical proof that the universe cannot have existed forever. He stated:

“If there were an infinite number of events in the past, we would never have arrived at the present.”[i]

This simple, yet profound philosophical argument cannot be refuted without dismissing the laws of logic. Think about it. If time is a corridor and you started in the present and went back in time towards infinity past, you would never reach infinity past.  You can’t reach infinity past from the present: you will never get there! In the same way, you can’t reach the present from infinity past. It is impossible! Al-Ghazali’s theorem proves that the universe cannot have existed forever. Thus, Al-Ghazali concluded;

“An infinite number of things cannot exist.”[ii]  

I would amend this to “an infinite number of things cannot exist in a temporal universe(one which is constrained within space and time).

This applies to increments of time (seconds) as well as physical matter. David Hilbert, the German mathematician, also proposed a model that proved the impossibility of any sort of universe existing eternally in the past. (Check it out for yourself: do an internet search for “Hilbert’s Hotel”).

The evidence of mathematics, philosophy and cosmology all point to the same inescapable conclusion: the physical universe (along with its governing laws) has not existed eternally. It had a beginning. And, if it had a beginning, its cause must lie beyond itself – something ‘super’natural.

Hence, the atheist is left with an unsolved conundrum. Atheism’s prime assertion that nothing outside of nature exists – nothing supernatural – cannot be logically maintained when the origin of the universe is considered. Ultimately, the atheist is faced with an unanswerable question – How did the natural, physical universe spring into existence by itself, if they believe that nothing outside of nature exists?

This is why I think it takes more faith to be an atheist than to be a Christian.


[i] Al-Ghazali, quoted in Greg Dewar, “Advanced Philosophy and Ethics of Religion”,  Oxford University Press, Oxford. 2002, p.18.

[ii] Al-Ghazali, quoted in Greg Dewar, “Advanced Philosophy and Ethics of Religion”,  Oxford University Press, Oxford. 2002, p.18.