It may seem odd that some Christian thinkers have frowned and scratched their heads over that statement. Why would any Christian doubt that God exists? Well, if we imagine one of these deep thinkers trying to answer our question, he might say something like this:
“The problem lies in connecting these two words, God and exists. After all, we’re probably going to read into the word exists everything that we understand by that term. And our experience of ‘existence’ has to do with a world that depends, moment by moment, on God. God created the world; God caused it to exist; it doesn’t have to exist, but God decided to make it exist as an act of His free will; and, in theory, it could stop existing. But none of that applies to God. The world’s kind of existence isn’t God’s kind of existence. No one created Him; He has no cause; He has to exist—it’s impossible for Him not to. So I balk at saying ‘God exists.’ It’s too simplistic. God is infinitely greater than existence as we know it.”
I think the deep thinker is being overly sensitive. The Bible says, “he who comes to God must believe that He is” (Heb. 11:6). We could just as well translate “He is” as “He exists.” Still, the deep thinker has a point. God’s existence is both different from and greater than our kind of existence. And the deep thinker has put his finger on the really basic difference. The universe does not exist by its own power or decision, but by God’s. The universe does not have to exist at all. But God depends on nothing and no one for His existence; and He does have to exist—it is impossible for Him not to. To put it in slightly more technical language, the world’s existence is contingent. God’s existence is necessary.
(In case you are reaching for a dictionary, contingent just means “not necessary.” The contingency of creation means that the existence of the universe and all it contains, from dust particle to archangel, is completely unnecessary. Right down to the deepest fibers of our being, you and I are not necessary. We will have to find the explanation of our existence somewhere else.)
God is self-existent. He is the only self-existent being. Everything else exists by the pure grace and favor of God, and He was under no obligation to create it at all. One could amuse oneself by imagining nonexistent entities picketing heaven and demanding the right to exist, but such a thought merely shows the folly of thinking that we could exist in any other way than by the free, unconditional will of a sovereign Creator. We have no right to exist. Quite a blow to human pride! God Himself, however, is different, uniquely different. He is completely independent of all other things for His existence. Unlike anything else, the divine nature is entirely uncaused. It neither rests nor hangs on any other object for its being. God simply is. When we come before God, we come as those who have no right to exist, into the radiant burning presence of Existence Himself. If that doesn’t make you go weak-kneed and dizzy with awe, perhaps nothing will.
Further, God’s existence is necessary. He cannot not exist. The divine nature is such that its non-existence is absolutely impossible. Just as it is impossible for God to lie (Heb. 6:18) or deny Himself (2 Tim. 2:13), it is impossible for Him not to exist. Necessary existence, or self-existence, is one of God’s unchanging perfections. Scientific theory or fiction sometimes uses the idea of “possible worlds.” Theologically, all worlds are “possible” worlds; but God is not a possible God. Beyond all concept of possibility, He exists, with such a shattering force and power of existence that it is utterly impossible for Him not to exist. We who are feebly contingent are faced with the Necessary One.
One more point: The existence of the universe adds nothing to God. He depends only on Himself for His being, His life, His character, His glory. As Samuel Taylor Coleridge put it, the universe minus God equals nothing, but God minus the universe equals God. He does not need us, not even to assuage His “loneliness,” for how can there be loneliness in the eternal and eternally joyous fellowship of the Trinity? Everything God requires in order to be God, He finds within Himself.
Where does Scripture speak about these things? Think about the personal covenant name of God revealed to Moses: Yahweh (or, in older English renderings, Jehovah). Commentators argue about the exact significance of the name, but there is a general consensus that it comes from the verb “to be” and involves at its heart some such root meaning as “I am.” As God says to Moses in Exodus 3:14, “Thus you shall say to the children of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.'” In the Septuagint (the Greek version of the Old Testament), Yahweh is translated as “I am the Being One.” God does not receive being from any source outside Himself; God is—He simply exists. He is always the Fountain of Being, never its recipient.
In the New Testament, we find this self-existence ascribed to the divine nature of the Logos, or Word. In John 1:1 we read that “In the beginning was the Word.” The contrast is with the created universe. In the beginning, when God created the heavens and die earth, the Word already was. He did not come into being (as the created things did, John 1:3); He simply, eternally was. As Jesus Himself said in John 8:58, “Before Abraham was, I AM.” (A better translation would be, “Before Abraham was born, I AM.” Two different verbs are used: the verb “to become” or “come into being” for Abraham, and the verb “to be” for Christ. Abraham came to be, but the Son of God eternally is.)
Again, consider what Jesus says in John 5:26: “For as the Father has life in Himself, so He has granted the Son to have life in Himself.” The Father has life in Himself: He has a self-existent nature, living by His own original uncaused life. Theologians debate whether the second part of Jesus’ statement refers to the Son in His eternal relations with the Father or to the incarnate Christ. My own view is that the strong language of self-existence indicates a reference to the Son’s possession of the divine nature. The same glorious self- existing nature that exists in the Father also exists in His eternally begotten Son (whether before or after the Incarnation). The Son’s person may be derived from the Father’s person in the mystery of eternal generation, but the divine nature which the Son possesses is pure life-in-itself, absolutely self-existing. We could of course say the same of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of life (Rom. 8:11).
The apostle Paul taught the self-existence of God to the pagan Athenians in his sermon on Mars Hill: “God, who made the world and everything in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands. Nor is He worshiped with men’s hands, as though He needed anything, since He gives to all life, breath, and all things” (Acts 17:24–25). The true God needs nothing. He depends on no one. He does not receive strength or sustenance from us; on the contrary, He is the giver of all strength and sustenance to His created beings. Life, breath, and all things come from Him. Maybe Paul here is contrasting the sovereign independence of the true God with a debased folk paganism that thought its gods actually needed human offerings of food and drink. But any god who needs what we can give lacks self-existence. Paul may have been thinking of what the psalmist said:
“For every beast of the forest is Mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills. I know all the birds of the mountains, and the wild beasts of the field are Mine. If I were hungry, I would not tell you; for the world is Mine, and all its fullness. Will I eat the flesh of bulls, or drink the blood of goats? Offer to God thanksgiving, and pay your vows to the Most High. Call upon Me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify Me” (Ps. 50:10–1
God needs nothing we, His worshipers, can give Him, but we desperately need Him and His deliverance in the day of trouble. I cringe when I hear Christians saying that God needs our love and service. He desires them, but He most emphatically has no need of them. He doesn’t even need us to glorify Him, because Father, Son, and Holy Spirit glorify each other in the endless life of the Trinity. All we can do is join in!
The Bible, then, may not use the language of “self-existence,” but it presents us with the self-existing God: He who is. The sinful human heart is so fond of saying “I am” that it deafens itself to the voice of the only one who has the ultimate right to utter these words. The dawn of faith in our unbelieving hearts is when God’s “I am” silences our “I am” and we learn the majesty and mystery of the Self-Existent One.