Aquinas’ Third Way to Prove God’s Existence

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St. Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225-1274), the eponym ...

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I’ve always hated change. Perhaps that is part of being an Aspie (having been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome), or perhaps it is that longing for something permanent lodged in the human soul. As a small child, I cried when my parents replaced my old bed with a new one. But more important losses came–my dog Fuzzy was killed by a car, my Uncle died suddenly when I was in my junior year of high school, my Granddaddy in my senior year of college, Granny while I was in graduate school. I remember the Sunday dinners at Granddaddy’s and Granny’s with all the great aunts and great uncles and my aunt and uncle. Meatloaf, black eye peas, lima beans, salad with rich French dressing, pecan pie, Coca-Cola cake, strong but good iced tea. Outside was a world of wonder under twin maples, and I’d swing across the gravel drive, lost in the moment. All those moments live only in memory–every moment is, as the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead (1869-1947) said, is “perpetually perishing.”

What does this have to do with Aquinas’ third argument in his Summa Theologica for God’s existence? The Third Way has to do with contingent beings and necessary beings. A contingent being is anything that is possible both to exist and not to exist. For example, you and I are contingent, as well as trees, dogs, cats, the earth, the moon, the stars, galaxies, and even the entire universe. It is possible for all things to pass out of existence. But if everything were contingent, if the universe has existed forever, then all would have passed out of existence (or at least the universe might “exist” as ruined husks of old stars and dead dark matter) by now. But things do exist now, so there must exist a necessary being, one that cannot pass out of existence, and this necessary being is God. Given the radical contingency of everything in our lives–we ourselves will lose all, literally, at death, it is comforting to realize that a necessary being must exist–a being who can never change, who is all-loving and all-powerful, who will restore everything that is good at the end of time. Aquinas’ Third Way speaks to me because my greatest fear has been to lose all in annihilation. It is not just my own annihilation that matters, but that of all those people (and animals) who loved me and whom I have loved–and I’ll even include some of the inanimate objects. A necessary being cannot let us down. He keeps contingent things in existence constantly–creation is not a point act but continues throughout time. If God were to (metaphorically speaking) remove His creative glance from the universe for one microsecond, everything would immediately pass into nothingness. Aquinas’ argument speaks to all of us who have suffered loss, who have felt the contingency of all finite things (especially the very old, who lose so many loved ones as they age). And we all suffer loss. But since God, the Permanent Thing, lives and creates the universe by His power and His love, we have a door that opens beyond the multitude of life’s changes. As the old hymn, “Abide with Me” says,

Change and decay in all around I see;

O Thou who changest not, abide with me.

Christianity and Other Religions

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Cults and new religious movements in literatur...

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Are people who are not Christians going to hell? Is there truth in non-Christian religions? Can Christians learn something valuable about their own faith from non-Christian religions? These questions concern at least those Christians who are orthodox with a small “o,” those who believe the doctrines of the Incarnation of God in Christ as fully God, fully man, and who believe that his life, death, and resurrection brings hope of eternal life and freedom from sin.

Many Christian Fundamentalists and even some Evangelicals believe that non-Christians are going to hell. Forget euphemisms such as “they are lost;” let this believe stand out in its full starkness. As a child in the Churches of Christ, I attended a “gospel meeting” in which a preacher said if non-Christians are not lost, why send missionaries to convert them. This was sloppy argumentation on his part, and I believe the Fundamentalists to be incorrect.

As an orthodox Christian, I believe that all who go to Heaven do so through Christ, whether they recognize that during this life or not. One can affirm the uniqueness of Christianity and the unique truth of Christianity without damning those who have either not heard about Christianity or do not seriously consider it due to the depth of the faith in which they were reared. The Roman Catholic theologian Karl Rahner referred to “anonymous Christians,” good non-Christians whom God would save, would send to Heaven. C. S. Lewis, in the last volume of the Narnia series, The Last Battle, has a follower of the false god Tash, a good man, saved by Aslan the Lion (a Christ figure) because, as Aslan puts it, “You thought you were worshiping Tash while all the time you were worshiping me.”

To the argument that there is no need to send missionaries, my reply is, “Isn’t Christianity good news. Isn’t it a good thing to spread the message of Christ? Maybe that message will turn the lives of people around who would not be open to any grace in their own religion. And if Christianity is ultimate truth, isn’t it a good thing to spread it without presuming that those to whom you’re preaching are going to hell?”

As far as Christians learning from other religions, why not? God can spread His revelation to whom He wills, and other religions may contain partial truths without containing the fullness of Christian faith. As St. Thomas Aquinas said, multis gentilium facta fuit revelatio, “to many nations revelation has been made.” From the Hindus Christians can learn more about the immanence of God (without accepting pantheism). From the Buddhists Christians can learn about letting go of desires that get in the way of God (without accepting the atheism of Theravada Buddhism). From Taoism Christians can enrich their sense of the unity and mystery of God (again without accepting pantheism). From some Native American religions Christians can gain a sense of God’s closeness to the natural world and that His love extends to plants and animals, not just man–and one could go on.

This is not to say that all religions make the same claims, as the philosopher John Hick believes. He thinks that all religions are about calling people to a high moral life–but one does not have to be religious to believe this. Plus, religions make contradictory claims about reality; Sankara’s pantheism is not the same as Christian theism, and atheistic Theravada Buddhism which denies any individual self or soul is the opposite of Christianity on those two points. The Christian theologian Stanley Hauerwas has said that “If all Jesus said was for us to be nice to each other, why the h… did they crucify him?”

Christianity, I believe is ultimately true–not just true for me, but true for everyone at all times. But as a Christian, I can still learn about my faith from studying other religions–and I can admit that Christ can save whom He wills, including non-Christians of good will and who accept God’s grace–which may be something that occurs postmortem. Finally, Christians should present the gospel as the good news of what Christ has done for mankind and not just a means for avoiding hell.