A church billboard caught my eye: “Since I don’t believe in atheists, atheists don’t exist.”
Growing up, it was pretty much that simple for me. The entire twenty-one years I lived in Houston, Texas, I never met anyone who admitted to being an atheist. Believing in God’s existence was like believing in the solar system: it must be there because everyone said it was.
I’ve never seen my brain, but I hope I have one.
Looking back, I’m glad an atheistic bully didn’t kick sand on my faith, because I don’t have any idea how I would have defended myself.
Most people who believe in God today are probably like I was. That’s what worries me most about the publishing phenomenon called “aggressive atheism.” When Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and their peers write books intended to talk us out of faith in God, they produce bestsellers read mostly by people who have never really thought about the question.
So let’s think about the question. It would obviously be hard to want a more intimate relationship with God if you’re not sure he is real. It would be difficult to convince others that God exists if you’re not convinced yourself. And it would be tough to explain your faith in God if you’re don’t have good reasons why you believe in him.
God or god?
Christopher Hitchens wrote an inflammatory book titled god is not Great. Throughout his writings, he refers to the Christian deity as “god.” Atheist J. L. Mackey did the same thing, but at least he capitalized the name when referring to the “God” of various faith systems. Hitchens refuses to be so kind since he is sure that “God” doesn’t exist and thus doesn’t deserve capitalization.
Most Christians (and Jews and Muslims) simply assume that he’s wrong. The biblical writers presupposed the existence of God, as did their readers (“In the beginning God . . .”). But this informal, unexamined belief will not do for those who question the reality of God. We cannot have a real relationship with people who do not exist except in our minds. We can have a dream, or hallucination, or fantasy about them, but we’d be schizophrenic to spend much time worshiping or serving our imaginary friends.
This is precisely what atheists claim: that God exists only as a dream, hallucination, or fantasy, a belief that cannot be proven or even defended rationally. Such critics are as sure that God doesn’t exist as they are certain that his word isn’t true.
Creation without a creator?
One way to respond to people who reject the existence of God is to ask how there can be a creation without a Creator.
This argument from cosmos to Creator is known to scholars as the “cosmological argument for God’s existence.”
If the universe began as a Big Bang, where did the Big Bang come from?
If you think life started as a cell floating in a pool of water, I want to know what or who made the water. Since we live in a world where every effect has a prior cause, it’s easy for us to reason that the world came from somewhere or Someone.
This “First Cause” (to use Aristotle’s term) we can call God.
Unfortunately, for those of us who like this approach, it doesn’t prove as much as we might think it does.
For instance, scientists say that the universe is running down (the Second Law of Thermodynamics). Some day, perhaps 10150 years in the future, all energy will be converted to matter and everything will collapse on itself. These cheery optimists call this happy day “heat death” and say that it will make the entire universe into one “black hole.” This is a rather pessimistic way of stating the Third Law of Thermodynamics.
Skeptics then ask, who’s to say that this is not how the Big Bang started, using forces we cannot now understand? Or, looking at the universe another way, what if history moves as a circle rather than a line, with a succession of Big Bang expansions and contractions?
Skeptics cannot prove any of this, of course. But then, neither can Christians prove our belief that God made the universe.
The Bible obviously says that he did and predicts that he will one day turn history into eternity (cf. 2 Peter 3:10, Revelation 21:1-5). But it would be impossible to prove these claims unless we were there at the beginning or are there at the end.
And using God’s word to prove God’s existence is probably the dictionary definition of circular reasoning.
Design without a designer?
Another way to argue for God’s existence begins with the design we see in our world.
Scholars call this the “teleological” argument, from the Greek telos, meaning “design” or “end.”
For instance, as I write these words, I’m sitting on a porch looking out over the beautiful hill country of central Texas. I can see trees and grassy hills stretching to the horizon, but none of them are aware that I’m writing about them right now or caring much if I do. I can see why a skeptic might say that all of this beauty happened by natural processes.
But if I look from the horizon to the porch, I find sandstone brick pillars supporting a patio roof with ceiling fans chasing away the mud daubers. To my right is a swimming pool with its cleaning snake churning the water. I can’t imagine that anyone would think that the sandstone bricks and roof and ceiling fans all just “happened” to be here, or that the pool just “happened” to exist. How much more complex is the world than a swimming pool?
Once we start down this mental path, we can find examples of remarkable design nearly everywhere we look. J. P. Moreland, in a debate with the atheist Kai Nielsen, suggested several:
In the formation of the universe, the balance of matter to antimatter had to be accurate to one part in ten billion for the universe to even arise. Had it been larger or greater by one part in ten billion, no universe would have arisen. There would also have been no universe capable of sustaining life if the expansion rate of the Big Bang had been one billionth of a percent larger or smaller.
Furthermore, the chance possibilities of life arising spontaneously through mere chance has been calculated by Cambridge astronomer Fred Hoyle as being 1 x 10.40, which Hoyle likens to the probabilities of a tornado blowing through a junkyard and forming a Boeing 747. Had these values, these cosmic constants which are independent of one another, been infinitesimally greater or smaller than what they are, no life remotely similar to ours–indeed, no life at all–would have been possible.
People who are persuaded by the design argument claim that the universe is not old enough for life to have evolved naturally. According to them, the odds that our present world could have evolved by random chance are too small to be plausible, if they’re even possible.
But there’s a “but,” and it’s a big one.
The easiest way for a skeptic to respond to this argument is to invoke Darwin’s assertion that life evolves through natural selection and survival of the fittest. If this is true, life did not come to exist as a tornado through a junkyard. Rather, we evolved through a process that chose the parts necessary to make that Boeing 747. The odds of “random” or “chance” occurrence are irrelevant in a world that evolved through such a process of selection.
Some evolutionists even claim that natural selection must have created life as we know it, that the odds were much higher in favor of life than against it. It would likely have taken much longer than fifteen billion years for the universe to have evolved through random coincidence, but this is not how things happened. Natural selection “sped up” the process of creating life as we know it.
Scholars continue to debate the merits of Darwinian evolution. But whether you believe that Darwin was brilliant or deluded, you can see why atheistic evolutionists aren’t much impressed with the design argument.
If this is the best we can do, our skeptical friends will probably remain skeptical.
Morality without a moral God?
A third way people argue for God’s existence begins with the fact of human morality. We all have a sense of right and wrong, but why?
Where did your conscience come from? Your parents, you say.
But where did your parents get theirs? And where did their parents get theirs? And so on.
Ultimately, we can reason back to a God who is holy and created the human race with a sense of morality that reflects his own.
Unfortunately, this approach is not very compelling for skeptics, either. It’s easy to claim that our morality illustrates the Darwinian principle of self-preservation, since it often does. (My wife told me when we got married that, if I ever had an affair, it wouldn’t be a divorce but a funeral. I believe her.) Or we could credit natural selection for encouraging morality as a way of ensuring the survival of the species.
Even moral choices that seem to violate the instinct for self-preservation, such as a Christian who dies for his or her faith, can be explained as a selfish quest for admiration in this life and glory in the next. A Muslim suicide bomber seeking reward in paradise tragically illustrates the point.
I’m afraid our skeptical friends are still not impressed.
Reasons not to believe
It would seem that none of the classical arguments for God’s existence can compel us to believe in him. What’s worse, there are several reasons to reject such faith.
First, as we have seen, evolutionary theory can be used to explain the design of the world apart from faith in a designing God.
Second, if there is actually a God who made all that exists, it would seem that we would know he is real.
Harris makes an apparently reasonable statement: “The atheist is merely a person who believes that the 260 million Americans (87 percent of the population) claiming to ‘never doubt the existence of God’ should be obliged to present evidence for his existence.” It shouldn’t be so hard to comply with his request.
Third, some atheists go so far as to claim that the very words “God exists” are meaningless and incoherent. (See, for instance, Kai Nielsen, “No! A Defense of Atheism,” in Does God Exist?.)
What do we mean by “God”? We cannot point to anything in the created world, since this would be idolatry, making creation into the creator. Neither can we point to anything within the rational concept of “God,” since, by definition, our finite minds cannot comprehend an infinite being. To say that “God exists” is like saying “mumblephump exists.” Since I just made up the word, and no one knows what it means (including me), my statement is incoherent. If we cannot speak rationally of “God,” how can we believe in him?
Fourth, the problem of innocent suffering greatly compounds things.
It’s hard to believe that an all-loving, all-powerful God created a world filled with evil and suffering. As Harris makes the point, “An atheist is a person who believes that the murder of a single little girl–even once in a million years–casts doubt upon the idea of a benevolent God.”
Of course it does.
Reasons to believe
So, where are we?
One answer is to claim that God exists because the Bible says he does.
Of course, that is the very definition of circular reasoning. The Qur’an claims that there is no God but Allah (the Arabic word for “God”) and that Muhammad is his prophet. Unsurprisingly, the Book of Mormon supports the teachings of the Mormon Church. We’d be amazed to find a religion whose sacred writings do not advocate what the religion believes.
It helps that the Bible has such outstanding evidence for its trustworthy nature. But even considering the manuscripts, archaeological evidence, internal consistency and fulfilled prophecy, we cannot prove that the Bible is divinely inspired or that the God it advocates actually exists.
A second response is to claim that it is reasonable to believe in God, without trying to prove our assertion.
This we can certainly do. While arguing from creation to Creator or design to Designer does not prove that God exists, such thinking is clearly logical. Skeptics may not agree that we are right, but they cannot prove that we are wrong.
This fact is of some significance. It would obviously be a veto to the Christian faith if we could not demonstrate that believing in God is at least rational. I would have a hard time getting you to join me in worshiping Martians since no evidence could persuade you of their existence (I hope). But we can argue logically that God made and designed the world. Even if skeptics credit evolutionary natural selection as the explanation for life as we know it, they cannot prove that they are right. Their theory may be plausible, but so is ours.
Once we have shown that believing in God is reasonable, we can invite people to step from evidence into experience. As with all relationships, a relationship with God becomes self-validating. I know that God exists because I have experienced him. His existence was reasonable before I met him and compelling now that I have.
A third way to argue for God’s existence is to ask: What else do we want God to do to prove himself? How could he have done things differently?
Consider the four attacks on his existence we noted earlier.
The first was that evolutionists can point to natural selection as explaining life without a designing God.
For instance, my hands typing these words seem similar to a chimpanzee’s opening a banana. According to evolutionists, this fact proves that we come from a common ancestor. The adaptation of various species to their changing environment is further evidence of evolution at work, we’re told. Similarity and adaptation show that the world could have evolved without God.
But consider the possibility that God made a world in which life can adapt to a changing environment. In that case, adaptation does not negate design; it proves it. And perhaps God wanted me to be able to type and a chimpanzee to be able to eat a banana, so he designed our hands in similar ways to perform similar functions. All cars have four wheels, but this doesn’t mean that they all came from the same factory. God could have made a world without such similarities so evolutionists would have less evidence for their theory, but I’m glad my hands can type, even if a chimpanzee’s could do the same.
The second attack on God’s existence we considered earlier argued that if God made the universe, it is reasonable to assume that we would be sure of his existence.
But how? What would we like God to do that he has not already done? He made a world which bears remarkable evidence of creative power and designing genius. Yes, we can explain life through adaptation, but that very adaptation is part of his brilliant plan.
He has then stepped into his creation on numerous occasions. He sent his angels to men and women. He revealed himself in dreams and visions and continues to do so today. He then entered the human race, folding omnipotence down into a fetus and becoming a man like us. He proved his divinity by rising from the grave and returning to heaven. He gave us a book that records these events in remarkable and trustworthy detail.
What more would we like him to do?
He could appear to you as you read these words, just as he appeared in the flesh twenty centuries ago. But many did not believe in his divinity even when they saw his miracles and knew about his resurrection. In the same way, you could dismiss your experience as a hallucination or dream, believing that your senses were deceiving you. The only way you could be absolutely certain that God exists would be to stand in his presence on Judgment Day. One day you will.
Christianity can, in fact, be verified with absolute certainty.
One day in the future you will be sure beyond any shadow of a doubt that God is real and Jesus is Lord. But God is graciously giving you another day to trust in him by faith, another day to step into a personal relationship with him and experience the verification which comes to those who meet God for themselves. One day time will run out, and every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:10-11).
Until that day, there is nothing more a supernatural God can do to prove his existence through natural means. Asking the infinite, perfect God of the universe to prove himself to our finite, fallen minds is like asking him to make a square circle. Even God is not obligated to do what is logically impossible.
The third argument we noted earlier was that the statement “God exists” has no meaning or coherence since we cannot define “God” through experience or reason.
Again, how is this God’s fault? What would we have him do differently? We should not be surprised that we cannot define or describe him through his creation. Or that our finite, fallen minds cannot understand or describe him through the use of reason.
If we could, he would not be God. If our brains were simple enough for us to understand them, we would be too simple to understand them. How much more is this the case with the omnipotent Lord of the universe! As Mark Twain said, if I could understand every word of the Bible I wouldn’t believe that God wrote it.
The fourth argument against God we noted earlier is the problem of innocent suffering.
This tragic fact makes it understandably difficult for many to believe that an omnipotent, all-loving God exists. However, there are reasonable ways of responding to this challenge. See “Why does a good God allow bad things?”
So, does God exist?
Does the president or the Queen of England?
Not so I can prove it. I can doubt every reference to them in the media. If you claim to have met them, I could refuse to believe you. Only if I met them for myself could I be absolutely certain that they are real.
Do love and friendship exist?
I cannot prove to you that my wife loves me, or that my best friend is my best friend. I could tell you about the times they have expressed their commitment to me, but you could say they are lying. I could show you all the wonderful things they do for me, but you could claim that they are manipulating and misleading me. You’d have to experience my marriage or friendship to know that they are real. That’s just the way it is with personal relationships. Even with the God of the universe.
It seems to me that God has done everything he can do to prove his reality to us. The rational arguments for his existence demonstrate that faith is reasonable and logical. He has interacted with our world throughout human history and entered our race personally. He gave us a trustworthy written record of his creative work. He is available personally to everyone who is willing to trust in him. As a result, you could argue that more evidence exists for God than for Julius Caesar or George Washington.
The biggest problem atheists have with believing in God is that such faith requires them to accept the supernatural. If I am a materialist, certain that supernatural reality cannot exist, no amount of proof or persuasion will convince me of a supernatural being. Once you conclude that the world must be flat, nothing in logic or experience can prove you wrong. The presupposition determines the conclusion.
Of course, believing that the supernatural cannot exist is a belief. Materialism is a faith commitment. A materialist cannot prove that the supernatural does not exist, any more than a supernaturalist can prove that it does. The best we can do is to examine the evidence and then make a decision which transcends it.
You’ll know God is real when you ask him to be real in you.
It has been my privilege to travel frequently to Cuba over the years, speaking in Cuban churches and falling in love with Cuban people. Cuban Christians are among the most gracious, joyous, and persecuted people I’ve ever known. When Cubans make public their faith and are baptized as a Christian, everything changes. They are assigned to the worst jobs; their children get the hardest military assignments; their families are followed, harassed, and sometimes much worse. Such is life for a believer in a country whose government is officially atheistic.
Despite such daily opposition, the Christians I have met in Cuba worship God with passion and serve him with great delight. I’ve seen them stand on their feet for three hours in the heat of the summer, singing their praise to the Lord. Some ride bikes or walk many miles to get to church services. They hold Bible studies in their homes and share their meager possessions with those even poorer than themselves. Their love for Jesus both shames and encourages me.
Baptism is an especially significant time for them. This is the time when they declare to the government and the world that they follow Jesus. This is the time when their society marks them as Christians and treats them accordingly. Baptism is their entrance into a world of constant persecution.
During one of my trips to Cuba, I was invited to participate in a mass baptism service. Despite the suffering they would face, more than one hundred new believers had decided to take this step of public obedience. The church’s baptistery was not nearly large enough for the crowd, so we traveled by flatbed trucks and open buses to a lake on the outskirts of the town. Each of us who were baptizing waded out thirty or so feet into the shallow lake, then turned to face the crowd gathered at the bank.
Soon candidates began sloshing out to us. The first person I was to baptize was a young woman being carried through the water by a man I presumed to be her husband. I was surprised that she wasn’t walking on her own, as the lake was not very deep, and assumed that she was afraid of the water. He handed her to me.
I took her in my arms, spoke the baptismal formula over her, and immersed her.
When she came up out of the water, the joy on her face was beyond description. She shouted “Hallelujah!” and raised her arms victoriously into the air.
I handed her back to her husband, who took her in his arms. When he did, he raised her up out of the lake.
Then I saw that she had only one leg.
Surviving in her society with such a disability would be challenging enough for anyone. Doing so as a baptized Christian would make her life difficult beyond belief.
But if you had seen her face and felt her joy, you wouldn’t wonder if God was real in her life and soul.
Or if he could be real in yours.