Author: Phillip Jensen
You cannot put forward a proposition such as the Gospel of Jesus without being called upon to defend your view. One of the attacks upon Christianity that is most commonly used by people is that of Atheism. Christians are often challenged in the High School classroom or arena of public debate to prove the existence of God. If God’s existence can be doubted then the whole Christian claim can be ignored. Thus even people who believe in God will raise the question of His existence in order to defend themselves against the claims of Jesus.
The phrase ‘prove the existence of God’ is full of difficulties. The word ‘prove’ can mean ‘to demonstrate that belief is reasonable’ or it can mean ‘to demonstrate with absolute certainty’. That is, you can prove things in a Court of law and you can prove things in a mathematical exercise. But the nature of proof that is required in a Court of law is radically different to the nature of proof that is required in a mathematical exercise. Frequently, people put God in the category of mathematical exercise and demand proof of the same watertight, absolute accuracy. Such proof belongs to deductive systems of logic and is not available when discussing anything of the nature of existence.
Secondly, the word ‘God’ can cover a variety of different ideas. The creator of the world revealed in scripture as the triune Father, Son and Holy Spirit is in the mind of the Christian but not necessarily in the mind of the enquirer. Some years ago the Philosophy of Religion lecturer at one University defined God as ‘the basic God that all religions alike believed in – a God who was omniscient, omnipotent and benevolent’. Yet the God of Israel is very different to the God of Islam, especially in His benevolence. Furthermore, the Christian understanding of three persons in one God is quite different to the Jewish and Islamic understanding of Monotheism. Likewise, the deistic understanding of God is quite different to the Pantheistic or the Theistic view of God. The word needs much more careful definition before one can answer the challenge to prove God’s existence.
Finally, the word ‘existence’ is also ambiguous. ‘What does it mean to exist?’ is a difficult philosophical question. Frequently, in common language it means that he is there. However, it can also mean that he is part of the Universe or the world rather than outside it. We tend to think of existence as knowable through sensory perception. If that is the definition of existence then God may or may not exist for he may be outside of sensory perception.
So the simple challenge to prove the existence of God may by its wording be programmed against any reasonable answer.
The Bible does not argue for the existence of God. Rather it affirms His presence. It speaks of his actions in creation and in redemption. It does show sensitivity to some people’s rejection of him. Thus some Psalms like 43 or 14 and books like Ecclesiastes discuss the practice of Atheism. Paul writing to the Romans (chapter 1) also discusses the rationale of people’s Atheism. However, the Bible perceives that throughout creation the knowledge of God is clearly revealed and that anybody’s denial of this knowledge is an ignoring of the facts rather than an ignorance of the facts.
The Bible does therefore, have an explanation of unbelief. It is called sin. Paul argues in Romans 1:18ff that people deny God, suppressing the truth that can be clearly seen because of their sinfulness. So he says of the Gentiles in Ephesians 2 that they are ‘without God’ (atheos) and ‘without hope in the world’. He is not saying that they are philosophical atheists but that they are living outside of any relationship with God. That is, once you reject God as God, you will tend to worship other things as God. Frequently, these other things are idols, creatures made in the image of animals and stars, etc. Thus the Atheist of Psalm 14 is one who wants to live immorally as if God is not there. The Bible does not see that unbelief is an intellectual problem but rather a moral and spiritual problem. The very notion of God is one that invades my place in the universe, challenging my own deity and authority to run my own life. Thus it cannot be met by neutral, intellectual enquiry but only by sinful self-interest.
While the Bible does not argue for the existence of God it does show us where the evidences of God’s existences can be seen. The three main areas of evidences are creation, Israel and Jesus.
The very heavens declare the might of God argues Psalm 19 and Paul in Romans 1 and 10 says that Psalm 19 demonstrates that God can be seen in what he has made. This is not to go to the traditional proofs for the existence of God arguing that everything has a cause and therefore there must be a first cause and that must be God or that everything is contingent upon everything else for the whole of creation must ultimately be contingent on some one thing and that must be God. Rather it is to say that God’s existence can be and is induced from the existence and nature of what he has made, namely the whole universe.
The second place in which God can be seen is in the history of Israel. The prophets of Israel, from Moses through to Jesus, speak of God speaking through them. They, in His name, have called a nation into existence to live by a contract that he has stipulated. They have foretold and explained the nature of the history of these people. The God with whom they are dealing is the one who can be known in all of creation. These people and their prophetic interpretation of the events of their nation are one of the most extraordinary cultures of the ancient world. They are one of the few cultures that have survived to this modern world. Even this is something foretold by their prophets. They were one of the first monotheistic groups in the world and have given rise to Islam, Christianity and Marxism which, combined with Judaism, now will cover the vast slice of humanity. They were unlike the other ancient powers in being fairly poor and militaristically weak. They gave a theological understanding of the world, which has developed a morality that lies at the basis of most justice systems in the world. If God was speaking to mankind few people could have greater claim to be the recipients of His message than these rather unusual people whom we know as Israel.
However, the third area in which we can see the evidence of God’s existence is that of the person of Jesus. He comes in specific fulfillment of many of the prophecies of the people of Israel. He combines strands of prophetic expectation that were quite original and unexpected. He claimed to fulfill prophecies that could only be fulfilled by God himself. He demonstrated his claims in the character of his life, his death and his resurrection. He does not use His miraculous power in order to demonstrate the supernatural, as the Bible never doubts the supernatural. Rather, he uses His power in the fulfillment of prophecy to interpret and explain the character of His plans for the world thus leaving behind the evidences of the supernatural.
There are other areas of evidence for God’s existence, which the Bible will raise. Thus in Ecclesiastes we read of the perception we have of morality, timeliness and justice which come from God and do not make sense without God. However it is particularly in creation, Israel and Jesus that we see God’s evidences.
One of the great problems of evaluating these evidences is that of Epistemology, the study of knowledge. On what basis do we know anything? Leaving aside the two-edged sword of relativism we do have to face the reality of bias. For the atheist it is quite clear that those who believe in God have a psychological need to believe. God is a father for people who for various reasons miss their father. The fact that God as father is something peculiarly Christian and not true of Allah or many of the other gods that people believe in only demonstrates the nature of the Christian crutch as opposed to the Muslim crutch etc. That man almost universally needs a crutch may itself be an argument for the existence of God but then that may be an argument for the universal weakness of man. For the believer the atheist’s rejection of God has got to do with a sin bias. The atheist has a vested interest in not believing in God. And so in the to and fro of argument this particular issue becomes to some extent a Mexican standoff.
However, it is important to understand that rationality alone is not involved in the knowledge of God. For there is a mistaken idea that we come to our opinions from a completely neutral and rational understanding which may be true on matters of small moment and little concern but is not true of something as important as the existence of God. This must not be pushed so far as to make all human discussion and reasoning relativistic and useless. But we do need to understand the basis upon which we can know God. The traditional proofs for the existence of God are arguments based on the assumption that the way to know God is by rational reflection. They tend to be deductive arguments of logic. They each carry some degree of water but like buckets with holes they fail to convey all their contents. They were put forward initially as arguments to buttress those who already believed rather than as arguments to persuade unbelievers to become believers. However, they are frequently used as arguments to persuade people to believe which places upon them more weight than they can bear. One of the great weaknesses for Christians is that the God that they prove is an impersonal first cause rather than the triune of the scriptures.
A second way in which people think they will be able to know God is by Empiricism. That is because Empiricism is the main form of knowledge used in our modern society. Empiricism is particularly powerful as a tool of analysis with physical experimental enquiry, especially of experiments that can be repeated. It is weaker in the areas of history or ethics or law where people have to extend the character of Empiricism to enable them to claim to be ‘scientific historians’. Empiricism also has difficulty in the area of the humanities where the object of one’s study is also the subject of its own thoughts and reasoning and examination of the observer. However, Empiricism almost totally collapses in the area of interpersonal relationships. You cannot come to know another person by an empirical examination. The knowledge of God expressed in the gospel is knowledge of interpersonal relationship. If we are to come to know God then we must examine that knowledge and expect to find it in the same way in which we come to know any other person.
This brings us to the other method of knowledge, namely revelation. The argument of 1 Corinthians chapter 2 is that because of man’s sinfulness he does not know God and cannot know God except by receiving revelation. It is only as God reveals himself to you that you can come to know him. People who reject God’s revelation cannot then claim to know him. At first glance this seems a strange argument but upon reflection it is the way in which we come to know anybody. The way you come to know your father or mother has to do with them revealing themselves to you. Without this self-exposure, i.e. without the object of your study taking the initiative and showing you their very nature and self, it is impossible to come to know another person. Thus if God is personal, as the God of the Bible most clearly is, then the way to knowledge is by receiving revelation. If God is not personal but like a force, as in Star Wars etc. then the way to know the force is by learning under a master teacher to flow with the force and use its power.
Thus ‘the God who is there’ determines the way in which it/he/she can be known to exist. If the God of the Bible is the God who is there, then he is known through receiving his revelation.
The arguments against the existence of God follow several well-known tracks. There is the problem of evil, the argument from other religions, evolutionism and science, the historical verifiability of the New Testament, the problem of miracles and the nature of meaningful statements. Each of these arguments is provided by the way in which we express the Gospel. That is, if we argue from the God of creation we will provoke people to ask us questions about why there is in the world such suffering and evil, or to argue from evolution and Darwinism as to how to relate Science to Genesis. If on the other hand we argue from the historical person of Jesus we will provoke questions about the historical reliability of the New Testament. If we argue from universal religious experience then we will provoke people to ask questions about the other religions. On this basis, it is best to choose arguments based upon the revelation of God in the person of Jesus. This will lead the discussion into the areas of the Gospel rather than into the areas of profitless controversy. In most of the arguments God is defined too vaguely to really be discussed and it is much better to keep talking about Jesus rather than God: because Jesus is God come into our existence.
This discussion paper will run too long if we set out answers to each of the basic objections to the existence of God. However, it is a worthwhile exercise to think through what you say in answer to each of them. One sophisticated form of argument that you will not hear often does need mention and that is the argument from verifiability. It is the philosophical assumption of much modern western thinking that the logical positivists are right when they say that any statement that cannot be falsified, at least in principle, is meaningless. If a statement cannot be disproved in any way even theoretically, then it is not making any actual meaningful comment about the world. This viewpoint may be challenged in its own terms but does lie behind much of people’s thinking. It certainly lies behind the philosophy of religion classes where essays, especially by Anthony Flew about the meaninglessness of God’s existence play a large part in people’s rejection of God. However, the Christian claim is not beyond falsification. If Jesus is not raised from the dead then Christianity is false. That is, if the tomb of Jesus can be found with the bones of Jesus still within it then the resurrection is untrue, and the Christian God does not exist. Thus, Christianity is openly and publically falsifiable. Thus the statements about God made by Christians are meaningful.
The basic error of most objections to God lies in their perception of God. For many people God is the God of Deism. That is, God created the world like a manufacturer created a piece of machinery and now has left it to run of its own accord. Miracles then exist when God steps back into the machinery and holds up the works for a few moments. Thus miracles become the proof for the existence of God just as the disproving of miracles becomes the proof for the non-existence of God. The God of the Bible does not just commence work and leave it alone but rather supervises each section and development within the whole of creation. Not a hair in your head goes unnumbered. Not a bird falls to the ground except under the will of God.
Closely aligned to this deistic God is the God of the gaps. People have consistently been arguing for the existence of God in those areas for which they cannot give a rational explanation. Each time scientific enquiry has taken a step forward and explained something more of the nature of the world; the God of the gaps has got smaller. Sometimes the Christian rejects scientific advance on the grounds that God is being swallowed up by it and sometimes scientists think they have disproved God because they have been able to again remove some section alone that he could explain.
The whole argument about miracles and their possibility is important to notice in this area. Christians have been using the resurrection to argue the existence of God rather than as the New Testament does to use the resurrection to point to the character of the Messiah and the Messianic age that is to come. Likewise, people use God and God language without reference to Jesus and think that they can do justice to the concept of God. Jesus is the clearest perception of God that is available to mankind. To omit Jesus from the discussion of God’s existence is to omit batting, bowling and fielding from a discussion of Cricket.
Finally, Christians need to be on the offensive in their defense of the Gospel. Atheism is very big in diagnosis and very poor in giving an alternative. The weakness of atheism as an alternative needs to be exposed with considerable vigour in our society. Atheism is not only human but also inconsistent, immoral, irrational and infrequent. This is the “I” of Atheism, for the alternative to Theism is the belief in the “I”.
Atheism is inconsistent not only in its impossible logical position of claiming they know everything. Thus to know that something does not exist requires you to know everything. Thus to know that pink elephants do not exist requires you to know everything in the universe for if there is some area of ignorance there may be a pink elephant living there. Likewise to know that God does not exist requires you to know everything otherwise it is possible that God does exist in the area of your ignorance. On these grounds most thinking atheists have given up the word and moved rather to agnostics. This is a more pathetically humble word for it pretends to acknowledge that it doesn’t know while at the same time in its heart of hearts it still claims to know that God isn’t there.
It is this kind of doublethink that is normal in Atheism. Take for example the immorality of Atheism. If we are the rulers of the world we can make up whatever rules we wish to make up. The word ‘good’ will only mean what I like. All moral discussion is in fact a veiled power discussion for ultimately right is might and might is right. Whether I kill people, burn people, bribe people, love people is all ultimately an irrelevance. Thus the moral argument of the Humanists is completely fallacious. The fallacy is known as the ‘naturalistic fallacy’. The fallacy says that because there is something we ought to do something. We cannot move from the ‘is’ to the ‘ought’. Because the world is, does not mean that we ought to do anything in particular. Yet all atheists call out for moral rightness. Even the existential atheists who acknowledge there is no morality still call upon us to be ‘authentic’.
Or take the irrationality of atheism. Most atheists like to claim that they have come to their point of view because they are rational, reasonable people rather than emotional psychological cripples who believe in God. And yet if the world is not created by a mind aiming to bring existence into being with a purpose then the whole idea of rationality itself is questionable. Why should we expect the world or ourselves to function on the basis of any rationality or reasonableness? What is logic but the expression of the power group trying to control the masses without the use of arms? The very mathematical orderliness of the universe is the great conundrum for modern physicists. Why is a random event so mathematically rational? Why do I expect or want human life to be so?
Or again, take the infrequency of atheism. Most atheists speak as if the whole Western world has turned away from God. Even if this were true in terms of the Gallup polls, which it is not, the Western world is not the majority in this regard. In fact the belief in God has been one of the most resistant ideas to social and ideological pressure. Majority views are not necessarily right. But Atheists love to appeal to the argument of ‘most thinking people today …’. However, most thinking people today believe in God!
Or take again, the inhumanity of atheism. For atheists love to point to Christian and or religious inhumanity in terms of the Crusades or Northern Ireland but the name of Atheism has a very poor track record in terms of Marcus Aurelius, or Adolph Hitler or Joseph Stalin, or Pol Pot, or Mao Tse Tung. Furthermore, Christians can be held accountable for their failure to live in accord with their God who speaks against brutality and murder but atheists are not denying their atheism when they murder, pillage or destroy. For to the atheist – ‘humanity’ is just part of the accidental natural order, no better no worse; no more important or no more insignificant than the seal, or the kangaroo, the Dodo or the cockroach. Professor Singer’s arguments for vegetarianism, which are based upon the moral judgement against specieism, shows the irrational, immoral and inhuman pits that atheism will sink into. For my use of other creatures is condemned by Professor Singer on moral grounds because I am as much an accident as they. Real belief in the accident theory of life would mean that there are no moral grounds to question any of my actions. The belief that I am no different to the witchetty grubs that I eat is a total devaluation of human life.
A paper originally developed by Phillip Jensen for the School of Christian Ministry (SOCM), part of Campus Bible Study (CBS) at UNSW where Phillip was chaplain 1975–2005.