This is the weekly Q & A blog post by our Research Professor in Philosophy, Dr. William Lane Craig.
Hello Dr. Craig,
First off I'd like to say thank you for sharing the word of God with the world! Your work for Christ is appreciated by many believers and skeptics alike, myself included.
I have a few questions for you which I am hoping you can answer to help strengthen my arguments for Christianity. I have a friend who is a Panentheist; she believes that God literally is the universe and exists apart from the universe at the same time. She claims that God is eternal and there is no reason to believe that the universe began. She also believes that God can be both material and immaterial at the same time and she uses Christ as an example for this point. Finally, she believes that God is not a cause apart from nature, but literally is the force of nature (e.g. Genesis 1 - Elohim "becoming" light and so forth, teachings of Hasidic Judaism, Isaiah 6:3, Gods omniscience, being in all places at once); therefore she also believes that God does not hand down judgment to humanity but instead warns us of the inevitable results due to particular actions (e.g. Genesis 4).
My questions are:
1) Does God act as a cause outside of nature or are acts of nature acts of God without an external cause outside of nature?
2) Is the universe eternal? If the universe is eternal could God be the cause of the universe's existence?
3) Can God be the universe and exist apart from the universe at the same time?
Thank you for your time. I hope to hear from you at your earliest convenience.
Dr. William Lane Craig’s Response
Panentheism holds that God is a di-polar entity comprising both the physical world and a transcendent aspect of some sort. The most important thing to keep in mind in dealing with a panentheist is that there is just no good reason to believe that panentheism is true. You don’t have to refute your friend’s panentheism, Jane. Your friend bears the burden of giving you some reason to think that panentheism is true.
It should go without saying that the justification for panentheism cannot be biblical revelation or teaching. For the Bible knows nothing of the doctrine that the world is part of God. In his influential work on the character of ancient Jewish monotheism, Richard Bauckham identifies two characteristics that uniquely mark off Israel’s God from all others, namely that “he is Creator of all things and sovereign Ruler of all things.” Thus, the world is not a part of God but a created entity dependent upon God and ruled by God. There is in Judaism a bright dividing line which separates God ontologically from everything else, a bifurcation which Bauckham attempts to capture by the term “transcendent uniqueness.” He writes,
This God of Israel is the one and only Creator of all things and sovereign Lord over all things. Among the many other things that late Second Temple period Jews said about the uniqueness of their God, these two aspects of his unique relationship to all other reality were the most commonly cited, repeatedly used to put YHWH in an absolutely unique category.
Bauckham cites numerous Jewish texts which distinguish God from all the rest of reality, and the majority of scholars have concurred in Bauckham’s exegesis of these texts.
God’s status as the sole ultimate reality comes to practical expression in the Jewish restriction of worship as properly directed toward God alone. According to Bauckham this restriction “most clearly signaled the distinction between God and all other reality.” No creature is to be worshipped; worship is properly directed to God alone, the Creator and Ruler of everything apart from Himself.
The texts your friend cites obviously do not controvert this central Jewish teaching. Genesis 1:1-3 explicitly teaches that God is the Creator of light, not that He became light. Isaiah in no way imagined that the world’s being full of God’s glory (Isaiah 6:3) contradicted Isaiah’s emphatic affirmation of God’s transcendent uniqueness as “the Creator of the ends of the Earth” (Isaiah 40:25-28; cf. 44:24; 45:12). Neither do God’s omniscience or omnipresence in any way imply that God is not the Creator of the world. Hasidic Judaism is a modern, mystical sect of Judaism that has no bearing upon the Judaism of the Ancient Near East and the interpretation of the biblical texts. This leads me to think that your friend is imposing an interpretation on the biblical texts that is quite foreign to them. This is very evident in her claim that “God does not hand down judgment to humanity but instead warns us of the inevitable results due to particular actions.” Not only is that not taught in Genesis 4, as she claims, but one has only to turn to the story of the flood two chapters later to see a vivid example of God’s bringing judgment upon humanity.
So if panentheism is not justified biblically, we must ask what arguments your friend can offer to support panentheism. I can’t think of any. The theological analogy from Christ’s incarnation is provocative, but it depends upon what is called a mereological interpretation of the incarnation, whereby Christ’s human nature is said to be a part of Christ, which is not the way the incarnation is normally understood. In any case, this analogy provides no reason for thinking that God is related to the world as Christ is related to his human nature, any more than the fact that I have an immaterial part (my soul) and a material part (my body) provides a reason for thinking that God is related to the world as the soul is to the body.
Indeed, the traditional theistic arguments are a thorn in the side of panentheism, since many of them show that the world is a created reality dependent upon God, not a part of God. The philosophical and scientific evidence for the beginning of the universe is a particularly difficult challenge to panentheism, for how will your friend support her belief that the world did not have a beginning but is past eternal? I find it terribly ironic that during the same period of time that the scientific evidence has steadily accumulated that the universe is not past eternal but had a beginning pantheistic theologians have come to embrace a view of the world which is so at odds with mainstream science.
So in answer to your questions:
1) Does God act as a cause outside of nature or are acts of nature acts of God without an external cause outside of nature? The Bible teaches that God on occasion acts as a cause outside nature. The effects of such actions are called miracles. The supreme example is the creation of the universe itself. We have good evidence for such a transcendent cause, e.g., evidence for the beginning of the universe and evidence for Jesus’ resurrection, which cannot be accounted for by wholly natural causes.
2) Is the universe eternal? If the universe is eternal could God be the cause of the universe's existence? The Bible teaches that the universe is not eternal but was created by God at some time in the past, a view that is confirmed scientifically and is eminently reasonable philosophically. Setting aside philosophical arguments against the eternality of the past, there is no reason that God could not create an eternal universe. For any time t, the universe would depend for its existence upon God at t, whether or not there were moments of time earlier than t.
3) Can God be the universe and exist apart from the universe at the same time? Obviously, if God = the universe, then since the universe cannot exist apart from the universe, neither can God exist apart from the universe! But I think the more appropriate question is whether the universe could be a part of God. Biblically, that’s ruled out, and most of the traditional theistic arguments rule it out as well. God and the world are ontologically distinct.
This post and other resources are available on Dr. William Lane Craig's website: www.reasonablefaith.org
 Richard Bauckam, “God Crucified,” in Jesus and the God of Israel (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 2008), p. 8.
 Richard Bauckham, “Biblical Theology and the Problems of Monotheism,” in Jesus and the God of Israel, pp. 83-4. YHWH is the abbreviation for the Hebrew name of God Yahweh, or the Lord.
 Bauckham, “God Crucified,” p. 11.