Does God Exist, and Can We Know Him?
God and Contemporary Thinking
QUESTION 1: Does life really have any meaning? Sometimes everything seems so pointless.
This question can be so disturbing, particularly when our own kids ask it, that we respond by wishing it away. “You don’t mean that,” we say, effectively stopping an important conversation before it starts. We sense it will take us rapidly into areas where we are in over our head.
Parents aren’t the only ones who have trouble with this question. When President Clinton went before an MTV audience, the atmosphere turned serious as an eighteen-year-old girl named Dahlia Schweitzer stood up and said, “It seems to me that [singer] Kurt Cobain’s recent suicide exemplified the emptiness that many in our generation feel. How do you propose to . . . teach our youth how important life is?”
What a great question. With breathtaking suddenness this teenage girl raised one of the most profound issues of human existence.
President Clinton hedged for a moment. The New York Times commented, tongue in cheek, that the president did not seem to have a legislative answer for this problem. I should hope not! Life’s deepest questions cannot be addressed by passing a meaning-of-life bill.
But the president did not seem to have any other kind of answer either. His response was couched in the touchy-feely language characteristic of our therapeutic culture. We don’t really have to know life’s meaning, he suggested; we just have to learn how to feel good about ourselves.
What young people really need, the president said, is improved self-esteem—the feeling that “they are the most important person in the world to somebody.” He told kids to avoid suicide by remembering that, after all, “there can always be a better tomorrow,” a line apparently paraphrased from Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind.
But the meaning of life cannot be reduced to feeling good. After all, Kurt Cobain used drugs to feel better. Obviously it wasn’t enough. In fact, what both Cobain’s death and Dahlia’s question tell us is that a therapeutic culture fails to satisfy our deepest yearnings.
So when our teenagers ask this question sincerely, they deserve our full attention. Asking the question may be the beginning of a true religious quest. If our teenagers have been brought up in the church—even if they have accepted Christ as their personal Lord and Savior—this question may still be part of their growth in spiritual understanding.
No one—man or woman, boy or girl—can live for long without a sense of purpose, without an understanding of life’s ultimate meaning. Let me tell you a story about the lengths (or heights) to which people will go in order to invent a meaning for themselves when they sense life has none.
Larry Walters was a thirty-three-year-old truck driver who lived in a small development of tract homes in Los Angeles just beyond the L.A. airport. Every Saturday afternoon he would sit in a lawn chair in his small, chain-link-fenced backyard, sunning himself and drinking a six-pack.
The boredom—or purposelessness—of the situation drove Larry to try something novel. He came up with the idea (I suspect after a second six-pack) of attaching some balloons to his lawn chair and floating up about one hundred feet in the air, drifting over his neighbors’ backyards and waving at them. He went out and bought forty-five hot-air weather balloons, had them inflated with helium, and brought them back to his house.
Larry’s neighbors came over to watch and helped him hold down the chair as he attached the forty-five balloons. He armed himself with a BB gun so that if he went too high, he could shoot out a few balloons and keep from rising more than one hundred feet above the ground. He also equipped himself with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and another six-pack.
Then he was ready. He shouted to his neighbors, “Let go!”
They did, but he didn’t rise one hundred feet; he went up eleven thousand feet! He never shot out even one of the balloons because he was too busy clutching the chair! He was first spotted by a Continental Airlines captain who reported that someone in a lawn chair had just gone by his DC10. (The captain was asked to report immediately to the tower when he landed.) For four hours (this is a true story!) Los Angeles International Airport diverted flights coming in because Larry Walters was hanging on to his lawn chair at eleven thousand feet.
The authorities sent up helicopters and all sorts of rescue aircraft and eventually guided him back to the ground. When Larry landed at dusk (I remember seeing all this on television), it was an extraordinary scene. There were sirens, police cars with their bubble lights spinning, and hordes of camera crews converging on this man as he landed in his lawn chair.
They shoved a microphone in his face and asked, “Were you scared?”
His eyes were as big as saucers. “Yep.”
“Are you going to do it again?”
“Why did you do it in the first place?”
Larry Walters replied, “You can’t just sit there.”
Something within us tells us there has to be more to life than mindless relaxation. Something within us drives us to find life’s meaning—or to go to extraordinary lengths to create our own.
You can’t just sit there.
Human beings cannot live without a sense of purpose. Scripture teaches that we were made to know God and to return God’s love—that’s the sum and substance of every person’s reason for living. Made in God’s image (Gen. 1:26-27), we sense this truth about ourselves even when we cannot explain it clearly. Our built-in sense of purpose is so strong that when people turn away from God, they will turn to something else in order to make sense out of their lives, to define some purpose for their existence (Rom. 1:18-22).
The earliest chapters of Genesis set forth this purpose and extend its meaning into our work and daily activities. We are to cultivate the earth, to name the animals (as we do even today in discovering new species), to exercise dominion, becoming cocreators (or partners) with God in caring for the earth’s resources. Our work actually furthers God’s great creative purpose. When we do our work well, it reflects God’s glory and gives him praise. God’s purpose can sustain us in triumph or tragedy, in despair and disappointment, and in moments of great joy. Our life and work indeed have purpose: to bring glory to God.
So when your teenager asks, “Does life really have any meaning?” answer, “Yes! To know God and return his love!” (or, in the words of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, to “glorify God and enjoy him forever”). And then go on to discuss how this gives purpose to the young person’s life in the present.
For example: Has he or she just broken up with a girlfriend or boyfriend? (Such an event often provokes this question.) Talk together about how relationships aid or hinder our relationship with God. What purpose do they have in the larger scheme of things? For relationships—like everything else—can assume their appropriate meanings once we understand our ultimate reason for living. If we don’t understand humankind’s ultimate purpose, the meaning of our lesser purposes will always become distorted and assume either too much or too little significance.
QUESTION 2: But how can I know and love a God I’m not sure exists? Is there really a God?
This is a huge question, and we can approach it in several ways. First, the Scriptures teach that God has revealed himself so clearly that only fools deny his existence (Ps. 14:1; Rom. 1:20). Then the Bible says that we can discover God’s reality through (1) the testimony of creation and (2) the witness of conscience—for we are made in the image of God.
In the book of Romans the apostle Paul writes, “From the time the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky and all that God made. They can clearly see his invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature. So they [people who are in rebellion against God] have no excuse whatsoever for not knowing God” (Rom. 1:20, NLT).
The entire Bible, both Old and New Testaments, echoes Paul’s argument, which in philosophical terms is known as the argument from design. “The heavens declare the glory of God,” the psalmist writes (Ps. 19:1). And Christ asks us to consider how God cares for the sparrows and the lilies of the field. What we see testifies to what we cannot see.
The apostle Paul also writes in this same passage: “The truth about God is known to them instinctively. God has put this knowledge in their hearts [again, referring to people who have turned away from God]. . . . Yes, they knew God, but they wouldn’t worship him as God or even give him thanks. And they began to think up foolish ideas of what God was like. The result was that their minds became dark and confused” (Rom. 1:19-21, NLT).
Paul alludes here to a foundational scriptural notion that goes back to Genesis. The human person is made in the image of God. In other words, when God created us, he made us to be mirror images of himself; we are creatures who resemble our Creator in distinctive ways. We have free choice; we are creatures of reason; we are creative; we are made for meaningful work; we are meant to exist in relationship—in all these ways and others we are made in God’s image. For this reason we sense, without being taught, that there must be a God.
Don Richardson, a Canadian missionary, spent several years studying the beliefs of different cultures. He discovered that all of the ancient tribes of history believed in the existence of a supreme being. This belief assumed various forms, but belief in some type of god was universal. He also discovered many stories of people journeying from isolated locations to hear a missionary preach. When they heard the gospel of Christ for the first time, they would say, “That is the One [meaning God] I have been wanting to know about.”
One of the best stories showing that the truth of God is evident within us is told in my book The Body. It is the story of my friend Irina Ratushinskaya. Irina, a Soviet dissident imprisoned for five years in the Gulag, mentally wrote and memorized three hundred poems, which were published to worldwide acclaim upon her release. Her autobiographical Grey Is the Color of Hope details her life and imprisonment.
Irina’s parents and schoolteachers were atheists. When Irina was nine years old, after listening to atheistic teaching from her teachers and her family, she figured, My parents told me there aren’t any ghosts. They told me there aren’t any goblins. They only told me those things once, though. They tell me there isn’t a God every week. There must be a God. In other words, if there weren’t something to it, they wouldn’t be fighting so hard against it.
She started to read the great Russian authors Pushkin and Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, whose writings contain much of the gospel. Irina became a believer because of this great literature.
Years later when she was in prison, the authorities tried to freeze her to death. She was huddled up against a wall, shuddering with cold, when she had an incredible sense that people around the world were praying for her. It was true. A group praying for Christians in prison had an extensive prayer chain for Irina—I was part of it—and somehow she knew it.
Whether in the worst of circumstances or even in cultures that have not been evangelized, people know there is a God. My own memories teach me this. Long before my conversion, when I attended church only occasionally and it didn’t mean anything to me, I went sailing one day with my six-year-old son. I can remember saying, “Thank you, God, for giving me this son.” I didn’t know who God was, but something within me declared I should be grateful to him for my child.
Just before Bertrand Russell—an avowed atheist and author of Why I Am Not a Christian—died, he sent a letter to a friend. He wrote in his autobiography, “Something in one seems obstinately to belong to God, and to refuse to enter into any earthly communion—at least that is how I should express it if I thought there was a god. It is odd, isn’t it? I care passionately for this world and many things and people in it, and yet . . . what is it all? There must be something more important, one feels, though I don’t believe there is.”
God is there. We know it even if we are in rebellion.
The inherent truth that God’s existence is evident to everyone reveals itself especially through conscience—one of the most profound ways in which the image of God in us testifies to our Creator. The apostle Paul refers to this as the works of God’s law written on our hearts, which justify or condemn our particular behaviors (Rom. 2:14-15).
Five or six years ago a teacher asked fifteen students in a class, “If a one-thousand-dollar bill is lying on the ground and someone comes along and picks it up and turns it in, did that person do the right thing?” The students answered yes. The teacher questioned further. “Let’s say you are hungry and have hungry children and you find that one thousand dollars and yet you turn it in. Did you do the right thing?” Still the students answered yes. “What if you know that it was dropped by a drug dealer who had gotten it in an illegal drug transaction—Is it still the right thing?” It still is.
How do we know this?
C. S. Lewis, an Oxford scholar, was one of the great intellectuals of the twentieth century. An atheist who set out to prove that there was no God, Lewis instead became a deeply professing Christian. In his book Mere Christianity he says that a sense of right and wrong, a sense of “oughtness,” is universal. Where does this sense come from? Lewis argues that it doesn’t come from biology or genetics or psychology. It comes from God—the image of God in which we are made.
Lewis uses the term Tao, a word taken from Eastern religion, to sum up this inherent and universal human sense of right and wrong. He shows that the universal phenomenon of conscience proves there must be a Lawgiver, a God who gives us this unaccountable understanding.
So when your kids raise the question of whether or not God exists, help them to see that the evidence of history and the conclusions of great minds concur with what creation and conscience declare: Yes, God exists, without a doubt.
QUESTION 3: But what if people created God out of their own need to feel cared for?
Sometimes our kids say to us, “Don’t talk to me about the Bible. Of course the Bible says there’s a God. But what if he’s just a creation based on people’s own needs?” If your kids have picked up on this objection to God’s existence, they have been influenced by a strong intellectual current that’s been around for the last two hundred years.
The influential German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach believed that God was made in the image of man, that God was a creation of the human mind. So did Sigmund Freud, who wrote, “A theological dogma might be refuted [to a person] a thousand times, provided, however, he had need of it, he again and again accepts it as true.”
Is religion then just a psychological prop? Is it merely a crutch for the weak?
Consider the nature and character of the God revealed in the Bible. If we were making up our own god, does it make sense that we would create one with such harsh demands for justice, righteousness, service, and self-sacrifice as we find in the biblical texts? Would the members of the pious New Testament religious establishment have created a God who condemned them for their own hypocrisy? Would even a zealous disciple have invented a Messiah who called his followers to sell all, give their possessions to the poor, and follow him to their death? The skeptic who believes that the Bible’s human authors manufactured their God out of psychological need has not read the Scriptures carefully. That skeptic may have penetrated to the heart of New Age religion, but he or she has not understood the teaching of the Bible.
If we were going to invent a god to prop up our spirits, we wouldn’t create one who asked Mother Teresa to spend her life picking dying people out of Calcutta gutters just so they might die with dignity, knowing they were loved.
We would invent the god of superstition—the god who forecasts our future and can be persuaded (or bribed) through prayer or chanting or séances to do our own bidding, a god who never condemns but only condones our most selfish inclinations and desires. We’d invent the god of the New Age.
But the God of the Judeo-Christian tradition is a God who demands everything from us—most of all that we confront, not flee from, reality.
QUESTION 4: Why does the universe exist?
Ultimately this question also deals with God’s existence. The popular theologian and apologist Francis Schaeffer used to say it’s the first question: Why is there something rather than nothing? Why is there anything at all?
Through the centuries people have attempted to answer this question. Astonishingly, the deepest thinkers in all of human history have been able to come up with only four possible answers. As difficult as this question may be, there are only a limited number of possible replies:
First, the universe is an illusion. That is, we are not here. What we see out there is simply a giant picture that somebody has painted on a screen. It isn’t there. It’s only an idea in one’s mind, just as you or I may be only an idea in someone else’s mind.
Second, the universe is self-created. That is, the universe generated itself. First there was nothing, and then nothing became everything.
Third, the universe is preexisting, eternal. This is the dominant view today in all quarters. Carl Sagan, in his video series and book Cosmos, became famous teaching that the cosmos “is all there is or ever will be.” That’s it! The cosmos. (Incidentally, this is why so many people are turning to earth worship. If the universe has always been there, then it is entitled to some status as our god on the basis of its eternity.)
Fourth, a preexisting and eternal force outside the universe or the cosmos—namely God—brought the cosmos into being.
The first answer, that the universe is an illusion, may be an interesting philosophical conjecture, but no one but philosophers—who allow themselves to suspend their own sense of living in space and time for the sake of argument—has ever considered it seriously. As a blueprint for meaningful existence, the notion of creation as illusion is eminently unworkable.
In the Enlightenment era, two centuries ago in France, a group of thinkers called the Encyclopedists—Diderot and D’Alembert being principal among them—came up with the second answer, the notion that the universe simply created itself. There are two problems with this idea.
The law of causality argues that something that exists presupposes a force that brought it into existence. If we stumble upon a house in the middle of a field, we are sure that at some point in time one or more people built it.
Another problem with this idea, an even more important objection, stems from the “law of noncontradiction.” This law states that an orange cannot be both an orange and a steel girder at the same time. It also cannot be itself and its own cause—both a house, for example, and the builder of the house. For the Encyclopedists to be right, the universe would have to be not only itself but also the force that brought it into being—two different things—and at the same time. So most people eventually discarded this theory.
Some still argue that in the midst of nothingness—before the universe came into existence—chance created the something that became everything. So chance, a property that still belongs to the universe, according to these thinkers, brought about what it then became a part of. But how? This theory demands that we credit a purely mathematical concept with godlike capacities. It solves nothing (and requires more faith than the biblical view!).
Most people today have disposed of this notion and believe the third answer—that the cosmos, everything that you can see, is all that there is or ever will be: The cosmos is eternal. However, this belief creates another major problem. I call it an intellectual cop-out. Because many people are unwilling to acknowledge that there had to be some first cause, they insist that what we see is all we can know. But the character of the universe itself argues against this.
To say that the universe is eternal and preexisting might be possible if within the universe we could find anything that was eternal. There is nothing in the universe (except perhaps in the area of quantum physics in which we are still investigating the motion of molecules) that is not contingent, that is not dependent on something else.
During Carl Sagan’s lifetime he used to answer this objection by saying that the whole can be greater than the sum of the parts.
Yes, of course, the whole can be greater than the sum of the parts, but it can’t be of a different character. This is a fundamental intellectual flaw in Sagan’s argument—the dominant argument of unbelievers today. There is nothing in the universe that is preexisting and eternal. The universe declares its dependence on something or someone else.
The most reasonable answer turns out to be the fourth one: The universe exists because a preexistent, eternal being—God—created it. People didn’t make up God; God created the world and us too.
Do these arguments then prove God’s existence? Not in the way mathematical formulas can prove 2 + 2 = 4. But they do show that God’s existence is the most reasonable assumption—especially when compared with the alternative.
The reasonableness of God’s existence can’t be equated with knowing God. But the best arguments on this subject may motivate us to spend our life seeking to “glorify God and enjoy him forever.” Your kids may be encouraged in their seeking to know that belief in God is neither irrational nor out-of-date. And this can help to keep them active in the quest to know him.
QUESTION 5: So who created God?
Have you heard this comeback from a teenager? It’s worth comment because it introduces another argument that addresses God’s existence and what makes him who he is.
An eleventh-century clergyman named Anselm of Canterbury said: “God is that [being], the greater than which cannot be conceived.” This is called the ontological argument for the existence of God—that is, an argument about the kinds of things that exist. If we cannot conceive of anyone or anything greater than God, then nothing and no one could have created him because that creator would have to be something even greater. The idea of God is the logical end of our speculations.
The early seventeenth-century philosopher Descartes, who was an influential figure at the beginning of the Age of Reason, expanded on this argument by saying that the very idea of God could come only from God because we couldn’t conceive of a God if God didn’t give us the ability to do so.
Perhaps the best way to understand this argument is to look at its flip side. Jonathan Edwards, the first president of Princeton and one of the greatest intellects ever produced in the Western world, preferred the flip side of the argument; he said one cannot conceive of nothingness. “Nothingness is what sleeping rocks dream about,” Edwards wrote. In other words, the inescapable fact of existence forces us to consider where everything came from, and this, as we have seen, leads us by turns to God.
If you want my formulation, it is simply this: We humans cannot conceive of nonexistence. The highest thing we can conceive of is God. We may not know God yet, but we know that he is there. Because we exist, we realize (because the law of causality is such a universal law) that we can’t exist unless something or someone has brought us into existence.
QUESTION 6: Why doesn’t God show himself more clearly?
During a question-and-answer period after I had given a speech at a university, a philosophy professor stood up and said, “If your God exists, I, as an atheist, would be convinced if you could ask him to perform a miracle at this moment.”
In response, I said two things. First, I referred to Jesus’ wilderness temptation. “If you are the Son of God,” Satan said, “throw yourself down” from the highest roof of the temple, so the angels will save you. Jesus replied: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test” (Matt. 4:5-7). God does not need to perform miracles to validate his witnesses or prove himself to anyone. He is not under our command; if he were, he would not be much of a God—one who had to jump and perform whenever we demanded.
But I went on to say that if the man really wanted to see a miracle, all he had to do was look at me. If someone really knew what had been in my heart before my conversion, he would have to say, “Here stands a miracle.” And millions of believers from every age and walk of life could tell a similar story of transformation.
People in every age pose the same question: Why doesn’t God prove that he exists through some powerful demonstration? In Jesus’ day, the Jews expected the Messiah to appear as a king surrounded by soldiers in glinting armor and mounted on horses.
But every Christmas season God reminds us what his answer to that question is: His transforming power appears in ways that confound our expectations, just as his Son, Jesus Christ, came not as a crowned king but as a frail baby in a smelly stable, among the common folk. He came quietly—born in the most out-of-the-way place and laid in a manger—not with trumpets or banner headlines but in all simplicity, so as to fully empty himself of his glory as God’s own Son. Later in his life Jesus would perform many miracles as signs of his mission, but the greatest miracle of all was his willingness to give up the glories of heaven and identify completely with his creatures, alienated by sin. C. S. Lewis puts it this way: “The central miracle asserted by Christians is the Incarnation. They say that God became Man. Every other miracle prepares for this, or exhibits this, or results from this.”
When God became human, he found the perfect means to invite humankind back into relationship with himself. When God appears to everyone at the consummation of history, people will have no choice but to believe. Until then, God has chosen to respect human freedom by offering an invitation that isn’t shadowed by coercion—the overpowering force of a revelation that would leave us all cowering in submission. No, he chooses to use the “foolish things” of the world—the obscure, the poor, the marginal—to confound the wise (1 Cor. 1:27). God does not show himself more clearly because of his love. Because he wants us to choose to love him, he preserves our capacity for faith or faithlessness by offering a sufficient and complete revelation in Christ rather than by giving a coercive demonstration of his power.
QUESTION 7: If everything you say is true, why don’t more people believe?
Our democratic society can sometimes lead children to believe that truth is the result of popular opinion; if something isn’t popular, it can’t be true. When answering this question, we need to start by showing that truth often runs counter to popular opinion. For example, the world appears to be flat, but in fact it’s round. So what seems right to a lot of people—in this case, the whole world before Copernicus—isn’t always so.
Atheism, or the refusal to believe in God, is almost always based on moral objections to the existence of God. During the last twenty years I have found some people with intellectual objections, but not many. Most objections are moral.
Mortimer Adler—philosopher, cofounder of the Great Books series, and arguably one of the great minds of our time—was pressed to become a Christian late in life. He was born Jewish, and he admitted being “on the edge of becoming a Christian several times.” Why didn’t he convert? He wrote: “If one converts by a clear conscious act of will, one had better be prepared to live a truly Christian life. So you ask yourself, ‘Are you prepared to give up all of your vices and weaknesses of the flesh?’ ” It took Adler a long time to feel he was prepared. He experienced the great gulf between the mind and the heart. Adler went through an incredible agony because intellectually he knew there was a God, but morally he was unwilling to take up the demands of Christianity. Six years after he wrote in such a hesitant manner, he gave his life to Christ and is today a professing Christian. He realized that the truth of God is more important than our moral objections. I have run into hundreds, maybe thousands, of people like Mortimer Adler.
Once I debated Madalyn Murray O’Hair, the famous atheist. It was a fascinating experience because she was so vicious, even when the debate was over. I tried to talk to her nicely. I couldn’t get her to respond in kind. “Tell me,” I said, “why are you fighting so hard against something that, as you see it, doesn’t exist? Why are you so angry about it? I don’t understand it.”
Actually, I do understand it because such animosity represents moral rebellion against God. And that rebellion is a fight to the death—the death of one’s own willfulness.
Young people today are under great pressure—from peers and from the popular culture—to throw off every moral restraint and do whatever they feel like doing. For many teenagers, accepting the existence of God and doing battle with the daily pressures coming at them is a great struggle. Rebellion is much easier. But we have to subdue that rebellion, a task that can take a lifetime and be completed only by God’s grace.
KEY POINTS IN BRIEF
¨ We were created to know God, to return God’s love, and to enjoy communion with God. That’s the meaning of life.
¨ We were created in God’s image.
¨ When people turn away from God, they feel compelled to turn to something else to define their purpose for existence.
¨ The Bible says we can discover God’s reality through (1) the testimony of creation and (2) the witness of conscience.
¨ The God of the Bible demands too much ever to be considered a crutch. He calls us to moral perfection and self-sacrifice.
¨ The god of superstition—who also happens to be the god of the New Age belief system—is the kind of god we would invent: a god who never condemns but only condones our most selfish inclinations and desires.
¨ The universe exists because a preexistent, eternal being, God, created it. This is the most reasonable explanation as well as the witness of Christianity.
¨ God reveals himself to us in ways that do not compromise human freedom. He often demonstrates his transforming power in ways that confound our expectations, as he did in the incarnation of his Son, Jesus Christ.
¨ Atheism is almost always based on moral objections to the existence of God.