In April 1961, the Soviet Union achieved a great Cold War coup by sending a man into orbit and returning him alive. The cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, became the first human in outer space. On his lap around Earth he reported, “I don’t see any God up here.”1
This was not so much a theological statement as an ideological boast, for Gagarin’s atheistic, communist country had won both the satellite and manned mission events of the race into space. He punctuated the Soviet achievements by snubbing the Christianized West and the God in whom they believed.
How do we prove God exists?
While now just another morsel in the history of propaganda, Gagarin’s remark is still useful because it demonstrates an abiding problem in the ongoing debate over the existence of God. At face value, of course, his observation, or in this case, lack of observation, invites the obvious rejoinder that one would not expect to see God (even if God has a physical presence) a mere two hundred miles from Earth, hardly any distance at all in universal reckoning. More broadly, however, the comment exemplifies the knotty problem of evidence and reason.
What sort of evidence should we look for in determining the existence of God? How do we evaluate such evidence? How do we know what is relevant and what is deceptive? How can finite humans ever decide on the existence of an infinite God?
Although we might chuckle at the hubris or blatant political atheism of Gagarin’s comment, we need to take seriously the broader issues that it represents. When we start to examine the existence-of-God question, we must first demarcate and explicate a number of issues regarding our assumptions, presuppositions, and methodology regarding the arguments we might advance in favor of theism. This presents a real balancing act to both maintain the reader’s interest and also present a rigorous and defensible argument. I could detail every nuance of words and belief systems, but no one would still be reading after a couple of articles.
A practical issue
We have several avenues of evidence that collectively present a very strong case that the existence of God is by far more likely than not. I don’t care to call these proofs because I think that formal, absolute proof of the existence of God is outside the ambit of any theology, science, or human capacity.2 The question we must decide is not how to prove that God exists, but in view of the fact that we cannot prove the existence of God, how do we live?
We can assert that as far as human beings are able to observe and collect data, and create rational deductions from that data, the existence of God is by far the more likely explanation of our universe, and that one would be an utter fool to live as though God didn’t exist.
Some readers might be shocked or offended that I have said I do not believe anyone can prove the existence of God. I think by the time I am done you will know why this is so. The more relevant question (as I stated above) is, “Given that the existence of God is by far a more likely explanation for the existence of the universe, how should I conduct my life?”
An outline of what’s to come
This set of articles on the “existence of God question”3 will proceed as follows:
- A few necessary qualifications and definitions.
- A summary of the classical categories of theistic and antitheistic arguments, with emphasis on those of particular relevance, and an assessment of their value.
- A concluding section that will argue that the above standard “proofs” are really limited, that the existence of God is of necessity unprovable, and why that’s good news for theists.
What do we mean by “God”?
It makes sense before we set out any evidence for the existence of a given entity to determine just what the entity is that we’re looking for. That is, we need to define “God.”
I am not going to delve into the possibilities of a “god” outside our customary concept. I will not argue for the reality of the Greek or Roman pantheon, or the gods of any polytheistic culture. I plan to take up the question of mythology and how it relates to modern religions in future articles in this series. I will also exclude any form of pantheism (worship of the entire natural world as being the manifestation of God), polytheism, or dualism (good and evil deities). We will argue only for the existence of a single, omnipotent (all-powerful) being.
To this singular being we will ascribe the usual attributes: eternal (without beginning or end), omniscient (all-knowing), omnipresent (acting everywhere in the universe simultaneously), and omnibenevolent (perfectly and completely good). Omnipotent does not mean “able to do anything,” it means that no outside force can prevail against God’s will. God has certain self-limitations (God cannot lie, e.g.,); omnipotence is not a gateway to foolish propositions about God.
To this standard list, I will also stipulate one further characteristic: that God is the creator of the universe. This is no great claim given the previous list, but I want to develop and defend the position that the universe came into being by the will and design of a single creator God.
The characteristic of “eternal” is the one feature that best defines God. Eternal means more than timelessness; it indicates existence of another order beyond the material world of our experience. God is transcendent over all aspects of nature: time, matter, life, and motion. God is without beginning or end, and infinite in wisdom, power, and goodness. Eternal is the key requisite for describing a “higher being.” I make the point of this now because the eternal aspect of God will play a key role both in our evidences of God and also when we distinguish among various views of the nature of God.
Limits on our description of God
For the time being I will omit any specific characteristics, activities, or manifestations of God. In other words, at this level of discussion, the God we describe could be the god of any monotheistic religion. The task at hand is to demonstrate the existence of the deity so described above. Once we have established this supposition, then we can get more specific and come to argue very successfully for the God we worship in that form of religion we know as “The Truth.” However, that is another matter altogether, and one that we will explore in detail when we get to the articles in this series that deal with questions of exclusivity.
For reasons that will become clear as we move along, it makes sense to bypass, for the present, any “doctrinal” attributes of God. We will use the general description only: an eternal being, creator of the universe, constrained by no external force, and infinite in power, goodness, knowledge, and wisdom. This we will call God or the Supreme Being.
Positions of belief
The wide spectrum of options regarding belief in a supreme being often get compacted into three boxes: theist, atheist, and agnostic, corresponding respectively to “yes,” “no,” and “I don’t know.” To these I will add a few more terms that will help clarify the discussions to follow: deist, adeist, and antitheist. Let’s assign meanings to each.
A theist is a person who believes in the God described in the previous section. As I wrote above, at this point we do not want to further specify or clarify what about God this person believes.
An atheist is, obviously, the opposite: one who denies the existence of any such deity. An atheist may have a variety of reasons for such unbelief, but we can usefully propose two general categories.
- The existence of evil has fueled atheism for probably as long as human history. Some people become atheists because of personal experiences wherein they expected God should have provided a different outcome. Personal tragedies and disasters leave many atheists in their wake. The Holocaust is, ironically, perhaps the leading cause of atheism we have known in modern times. We acknowledge the emotional stress and enormous personal devastation of such events, but they have nothing to say in the existence-of-God question.4
- The other major force leading to atheism is of far more recent origin, at least in any systematic way. This would be the changing worldview of the past three or so centuries of Western thought. To very briefly sum up a fascinating chain of history, materialism5 and naturalism have largely replaced supernaturalism as the primary causative mechanisms of the universe and all events therein. The ability of “science” to explain all phenomena in purely naturalistic terms has replaced the need for a God in the minds of many. (For others, knowledge of how nature works underscores the beauty and organization of a Creator.)
The proliferation of many aspects of scientific knowledge helped spawn a concept of God known as deism. Deism, popular during and after the European Enlightment, still lives in a variety of manifestations. Deism differs from theism in that the deist position acknowledges an omnipotent God, but denies that this God has had any contact with human beings. Deists deny any form of revelation, covenant, prayer, ritual, miracle, or mode of salvation.
The god of the deist designed the universe, flipped the “on” switch, and then left town. This concept of God does not engender worship, devotion, or morality. Deism can connote some sort of impersonal “first cause” to a scientist who doesn’t know how else to describe the origin of matter, or it can mean a personal God who exists, but without any specific plan or purpose or interaction with humans. To a deist, the only knowledge we could have about God is that which is inferred by a study of the natural world.
Deism is not a specific creed, or even a movement within religion. Today it functions mostly as a place of retreat for people who have lost faith in the personal God of theism, but don’t see cause to entirely abandon a creator. Those who do abandon even the deistic concept of a god see the universe entirely in terms of equations, physical laws, mechanical forces, and naturalistic explanations. We could call this kind of atheist an adeist.
Agnostics and antitheists
An agnostic (literally, “without knowledge”) position claims to be receptive to the possibility of God, but it represents a skeptical “I doubt it,” or “prove it to me” attitude. Functionally, an agnostic position is equivalent to atheism. I doubt if many agnostics participate in any form of organized or personal worship. I think the person who takes the agnostic position is most likely an atheist in practice. They might claim to be open-minded on the issue, but do they really do much searching?
Our last label to define is antitheist. An argument against God is an antitheist argument. We might even call strident atheists antitheists (or evangelizing atheists). They write many books and seem to have a religious fervor in converting people to atheism. Antitheists attack theism on many fronts, many of them in the area of “we can explain this phenomenon through naturalist means. We don’t need God.”
To some antitheist arguments we might say “Amen.” Orthodox Christianity leaves its chin wide open with doctrines of a personal devil, a triune God, heaven and hell as the eventual abode of dead spirits, an immortal soul, and cheap, ritualized salvation. Antitheists are often quick to point out the absurdity of these doctrines when trying to account for God.
Another arena where antitheists inflict heavy blows is against practices of orthodox Christianity, such as intolerance, persecution, and nominal ritual worship. Church history has contributed mightily to atheism, as people chose easily mistake “the baby for the bathwater.” We will, of course, separate our understanding of theism from orthodox conceptions, but that is an exercise for later articles. Suffice it to say for now that much antitheist writing is fueled by fallacies promoted by Christian orthodoxy. Add to that problems of the existence of evil and the materialist world-view, and you have the bulk of antitheist arguments.
Biblical allusions to unbelief
Words very closely related to atheist and agnostic appear in Scripture. The following passages need no further comment.
That at that time you were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God (atheoi) in the world (Eph. 2:12).
Awake to righteousness and sin not, for some have not the knowledge (agnosia) of God, I say this to your shame (I Cor.15:34).
For so is the will of God, that with well doing you may put to silence the ignorance (agnosia) of foolish men (I Pet.2:15).
For as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription: TO THE UNKOWN (agnostos) GOD. Whom therefore you ignorantly (agnoountes) worship, him I declare unto you (Acts17:23).
The arguments for theism
There are several categories of arguments in the standard repertoire of apologetic theists. I will list them now, and then start in on them in the next article. We still have outstanding a handful of background issues, such as the nature of evidence, limitations of knowledge, and the like, but we will take them up as the discourses require.
The apologetics areas we will find most useful are:
- The evidence from Design (technically known as teleological arguments).
- The evidence from Causation (technically known as cosmological arguments).
- The evidence of consciousness and morality.
- Evidences of specific revelation (Biblical consistency, prophecy, etc.).
David Levin, Lancaster, Pennsylvania
Next: The value of teleological arguments
1.This seems to be a verifiable quote, though he probably said it in Russian. According to comradekosmonaut.com, the first beings to see his craft return from space were “an old woman, her grand-daughter, and a cow.” Gagarin died seven years later in a plane crash.
2. It may be that proof of God is actually very obvious and before us continually; it is only the limitations of human awareness that prevent us from seeing this. The very presence of life itself is most likely a definitive proof of God. As humans, however, we cannot readily perceive the clear truth of this. Whether a given proof or source of evidence is obvious and overwhelming is tempered by our ability to perceive. It is in that vein that I say that proof of God is beyond us. I should more technically say that by human standards, proof of God is beyond us.
3. This is my designation for a cluster of related questions, such as “Does God exist?” “How can I know for sure that God exists?” “How can I prove the existence of God?” etc.
4. See earlier articles on the problem of evil.
5. We are used to using “materialism” to describe a culture and lifestyle focused on the unending desire to increase personal wealth and possessions. In philosophy, materialism has a very different meaning. It refers to explanations of natural phenomena only by reference to the material world. For example, one cannot explain the resurrection of Jesus by purely material means. Life cannot come forth from death except by divine intervention. Likewise, a materialist explanation of, say, weather, could only admit movements of air, water vapor, and the like. One could not say, “God sends the rain on the just and the unjust.” Materialism can describe how God works, but it precludes any possibility of Divine intention for any event in the universe.