How to Know God's Will
God’s will. You’ve heard about it. But how do you know what God's will actually is?
So you’ve decided to follow Christ. Awesome! But soon—perhaps very soon—after making that choice, you’re likely to be confronted with a host of others: Is my job the right one for me? Should I join this church or that one? Should I marry? Whom should I marry? When?
What decision will most please God?
Theologian J. I. Packer said, “No other concern commands more interest or arouses more anxiety [among evangelicals] nowadays than discovering the will of God.”1 He’s right. Those who follow Christ are anxious to please him—in both the big and small choices we make in our everyday lives. We want to “get it right” and be confident that we’re doing what God wants us to do.
The first step in knowing God’s will is simply to know God.
Imagine you’ve come into a marriage truly blind: you know nothing about your spouse, other than the fact that he or she is the one your family has chosen for you. How could you possibly know what your new mate prefers in any matter? Do they take their coffee black or with cream and sugar? You don’t know. You can’t know, because you don’t know this person at all. Of course, in time you will become aware of these things, but only as you get to know your spouse.
In the same way, you come to know the basics of God’s will for you by getting to know God himself. Read his Word—the Bible—to learn about his nature and character. Discover what he says about what pleases him and what does not. “God’s regular way of showing us what he calls us to is by appropriate application of the once-for-all revealed truths of the Bible.”2
But as you learn about God, remember this: your relationship with him is based upon his performance, not yours. No choice you could make, no decision you could arrive at, will cause him to love you more—or less—than he already does.
A Cosmic Scavenger Hunt?
A view frequently put forward is that discerning God’s will is like going on a cosmic scavenger hunt. We imagine that God has one single, perfect plan for our lives (which is, of course, hidden) that we must discover, recognize, and then follow to a tee.
Author Bruce Waltke calls this view “a version of the old con man’s ruse, the three-shell game.”3 Which shell is God’s will hidden under? What if I lose track of all the moving parts? How can I be sure of what and where his will is?
This view implies that in every matter, God has a specific, hidden Plan A. Failure to discover it results in a life-long sentence to Plan B.
But nothing could be further from the truth.
Years ago, a man very learned in the Jewish Law asked Jesus an important question about “doing the right thing” in order to please God. He asked, “‘Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?’ Jesus replied: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.’”4
In other words, God is pleased when we love him with our whole heart and love others as we do ourselves. This much is his will for every believer—and it is certainly not hidden from us. Jesus put it out there for the entire world to see.
It’s Not About You
As pastor Rick Warren famously said in his book The Purpose Driven Life, “It’s not about you.”5 God’s will is about, well, God. As you seek his will, endeavor to see beyond your immediate questions or desires and focus on bringing glory to God through your life.
God has a plan for his kingdom. As a believer, you are a part of the kingdom—but you’re not the only part. He is pleased and satisfied with you based on Christ’s sacrifice, not your performance.
In fact, many of the small decisions you agonize over could work out for your good and God’s glory in a number of different ways. His primary desire is that you love him—and others—well.
Obey What You Know, Trust, and Go
“We cannot predict or control what hasn’t happened yet, nor can we change the past, but God is sovereign over both,” writes Gerald Sittser. He suggests that instead of asking God whether you should be a teacher or an accountant, “a better question might be ‘God, what do you require of me now, today? What would please you and bring you honor in this immediate circumstance?’ Somehow, these decisions seem less paralyzing, and easier to discern.”6
Rather than becoming stuck and self-focused with each individual decision, it would be wiser to consider God’s Word carefully, ask the advice of mature believers, consider the doors that God may be opening or closing on opportunities, then simply obey what you are able to discern in faith.
God is wise, powerful, and good. He is able to cause all things to work together “for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”7 Once you’ve thoughtfully and prayerfully considered your options, simply obey what you know, trust in God, and move forward.
Finally, as you consider the will of God, be flexible. A yes to one situation does not necessarily mean yes forever, nor does it mean that a similar question won’t come up again in different conditions. Circumstances may change, but God does not.8 He is always faithful to his covenant children.
“This week,” writes Pastor Gregg Matte, “a relational intersection could change the course of your life. A conversation on bended knee could be the tipping point of your prayer life. By the same token, an unexpected phone call could bring you to your knees in grief. Life isn’t always easy. Its course can change in seconds, even as we try to plan out the years.”9
A hiker knows that, no matter the destination, he needs to be able to orient himself to true north. If he can keep this constant before him, he can find his way. True north for the believer seeking God’s will is the answer to these questions: Will God be glorified in this choice? Does it demonstrate my love for him and for others?
If you can answer yes, your decision is in harmony with God, and you can be confident as you move in faith.
- J. I. Packer, Hot Tub Religion: Christian Living in a Materialistic World (Wheaton, IL:Tyndale Publishers,1987), 105.
- J. I. Packer and Carol Nystrom, God’s Will: Finding Guidance for Everyday Decisions (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 2012), 5.
- Bruce Waltke, Finding the Will of God: A Pagan Notion? (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1985), 7.
- The Holy Bible, New International Version, © 2011, Matthew 22:36–40.
- Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishers, 2002), 11.
- Gerald L. Sittser, “God’s Will: It’s No Secret,” Discipleship Journal, February 1998.
- The Holy Bible, Romans 8:28.
- Ibid., James 1:17. “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.”
- Gregg Matte, Finding God's Will: Seek Him, Know Him, Take the Next Step (Ventura, CA: Regal, 2010), 20.
- Photo Credit: Galyna Andrushko / Shutterstock.com.
How Can I Know God?
Most people want to know God but how can we know him? Explore the idea here.
OK, so maybe there is a God. But even if that’s true, how can we know him? It’s not like you can just build up the nerve and ask him out for coffee—or can you?
Most of us—atheists, Buddhists, and Christians alike—have experienced a feeling of wanting there to be something more, a longing to be a part of something bigger than ourselves. After a particularly rough day, disappointing week, or devastating year, we sometimes find ourselves involuntarily hoping that this isn’t all there is.
Such thoughts have led many of us not only to wonder about the existence of God but even to ask ourselves how we can go about getting to know such an entity. For better or worse, there may be as many opinions on how to know God as there are grains of sand on the seashore.
But do you believe there’s even a God to know? Many people simply don’t. Perhaps science is all you feel you need; reason and rationale provide satisfactory answers to life’s greatest questions. God seems to be just a catch-all to describe events that cannot yet be explained by science. As Carl Sagan suggested, “Whatever it is we cannot explain lately is attributed to God . . . And then, after a while, we explain it, and so that’s no longer God’s realm.”1
Or maybe you feel it’s possible that there is a supreme being who designed the universe, but you can’t imagine that entity wanting anything to do with you. It is, after all, a hard concept to wrap your head around. How small we surely would seem to a being massive enough to create the entire world. Albert Einstein once said, “I don’t try to imagine a personal God; it suffices to stand in awe at the structure of the world insofar as it allows our inadequate senses to appreciate it.”2 So we might leave it at that.
But say there is a being as magnificent as this and even a slight possibility that we could know him on an intimate level. Wouldn’t it be worth it to at least try? I, for one, have to admit to a bit of curiosity.
Throughout history, people have believed in the existence of a knowable God—that is, a God who exists not only on a grand scale, but also at a personal level. People will try all sorts of things to feel closer to a higher being or to find enlightenment. Some use drugs or other methods to find their high. But most have turned to some form of religion in an attempt to know and understand God.3
People from nearly every religion known to man have tried to know God by living monastic lifestyles, separated from the world and denying themselves various comforts. For thousands of years, adherents to religions like Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism have practiced yoga—a physical, mental, and spiritual form of meditation—to pursue knowledge of God.4 Others, including many Jews, Muslims, and Christians, have sought to know God through strict adherence to religious rules and rituals, believing they could earn God’s favor by distinguishing themselves from the masses through religious practice.
Could it be, though, that despite man’s best attempts, the keys to knowing God have nothing to do with being religious? Maybe God’s desire is not for us to follow rules or perform rituals, but simply to pursue a relationship with him.
Whether or not we believe in God, humans are, by nature, worshipers. We all choose something as the object of our ultimate devotion.5 It may be a loved one, a band, a sports team, a job, or even ourselves, but each of us select our own objects of worship and focus our time, energy, and money there.
What if this predisposition to worship is actually an internal longing to know God? What if God created within mankind a deep desire to know him?
C. S. Lewis, the famous scholar, novelist, and atheist-turned-Christian, illustrated this point: “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”6
As adherents to the Christian and Jewish belief systems understand it, God created humans with great care and deep concern for each of us individually. God cares for each person’s joy, well-being, and unique life path.7 Thousands of years ago, the Hebrew psalmist rejoiced in this, singing of God’s great love for him.8
Christians believe that, because God cherishes us, he longs for us to seek out a relationship with him—even if we have done wrong in the past.
For what higher, more exalted, and more compelling goal can there be than to know God?J.I. Packer
Have you ever heard the tale of the prodigal son? There was a young man who demanded his inheritance from his father; upon receiving it, he proceeded to live it up and squander all his wealth. After hitting rock bottom, the son returned home, full of remorse, shame, and apologies. But what did his father do? He didn’t turn his son away or mock him with I-told-you-sos. Instead he accepted his son’s repentance without hesitation and rejoiced that his lost son had returned to him.9
This is how Christians understand it to be with God. Each of us is a broken person, bruised by the world and guilty of hurting others with our selfishness. Yet, like reconciling with anyone, the first step in moving forward in that relationship is simply to acknowledge the wrong done, ask for forgiveness, and continue to grow together through communication.
I imagine we’ve all heard the word “prayer.” But what does that really mean? At its most basic, prayer is just another way to say having a conversation with God, talking to him—the main way we get to know anyone.
That can sound a little intimidating, can’t it? But you’ve already been building up the courage to ask for that coffee date. Besides, if he already loves you, what do you have to lose?
- Carl Sagan, The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God, (New York:Penguin Press, 2006).
- Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, (New York: Mariner Books, 2008).
- Gallup International, "Losing our religion? Two thirds of people still claim to be religious," April 13, 2015, http://www.wingia.com/web/files/news/290/file/290.pdf.
- Swami Prabhavananda, How to Know God: The Yoga Aphorisms of Patanjali, The Vedanta Society, 1953, 1981.
- See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hEtdMKjohR8, an intriguing video by author Timothy Keller on “Counterfeit Gods.”
- C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, (New York: HarperCollins, 1952), 136.
- “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart.” The Holy Bible, New International Version © 2011, Jeremiah 1:5.
- “I will praise you, O Lord my God, with all my heart; I will glorify your name forever. For great is your love toward me; you have delivered me from the depths of the grave.” The Holy Bible, Psalm 86:12–13.
- To read the full story of the prodigal son, see The Holy Bible, Luke 11–32.
- Photo Credit: TTphoto / Shutterstock.com.
A Deeper Look at the Christian View of Science and Faith
Could science and faith be complementary? Take a look at what Christians think.
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Views on the relation of science and faith cluster around three basic schools of thought. First, science and faith are perceived to be at war with one another. This is one of the tenets of New Atheism and is also prevalent in some fundamentalist religious groups. Second, science and faith are thought to belong to different domains of human experience and inquiry. Thus they are able to coexist peacefully—so long as they remain separate from one another. A prominent example of this view would be what evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould called non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA).1 The third camp is the most diverse and arguably the most interesting. If science and faith are neither 1) enemies warring with each other, nor 2) strangers ignoring each other, then the logical alternative is that 3) they are some sort of friends aiding each other.2
A variation of this third view is closest to the Christian perspective of the relationship between science and faith. This Christian view differs from NOMA; within the Bible, no one corner of reality can be neatly separated from all others. Science and faith will have necessary points of overlap, because both seek truth and truth is one.
Thus the Bible routinely makes claims about matters of faith—such as the existence and nature of God—on the basis of the natural world: “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.”3 “God’s invisible qualities . . . have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made.”
The Christian view also stands in contrast to warfare models of science and faith. In Christian thought, all pursuits of knowledge—including the pursuit of knowledge about the natural world (what we today call science4)—are important and noble enterprises.5 But Christians emphasize that scientific knowledge in and of itself is value neutral. For example, science can be used to design bombs as easily as to defuse them, to spread disease as well as to heal it.
In Christian thought, knowledge is always governed by a larger worldview or philosophy or faith, whether of the religious variety or not.6 Christianity thus affirms a harmonious relationship between science and faith in which a certain kind of priority is reserved for faith.
The Value of Knowledge
The Bible’s creation narrative repeatedly affirms the goodness of all that God has made, and the New Testament portrays God’s creative work as extending to both what is seen and what is unseen.7 Historically, many religions valued mind more than matter, or matter more than mind. The biblical worldview is relatively unique for its unblushing affirmation of the goodness of both mind and matter, both rational and material. Thus wherever Christians have gone, they have founded hospitals and schools.8
Given this foundation, it is not surprising that many of the originators of modern science were Christians.9 Unlike a few prominent contemporary scientists, these pioneers did not fear that belief in a God beyond nature would hinder their observations about nature. Instead, their religious convictions grounded and encouraged their scientific pursuits, providing a kind of stability in which to conduct scientific experiments. After all, if a rational God created a rational universe, it follows that other rational beings could discover its rationality.
Johann Kepler is famous for claiming that science is thinking God’s thoughts after him. This statement could be broadened into a kind of manifesto for the Christian view on all rational activity and intellectual pursuit. If a rational God exists, then when human beings consider an idea (say the number 11, or a triangle, or the notion of justice), they are not conjuring up something of their own mental construction, but stumbling upon something real and solid that eternally predates them in the mind of God.
Thus, for the Christian, thought and intellectual discovery are intrinsically valuable, not merely instrumentally valuable. Seeing truth—about anything—is like examining God’s footprints or walking into a room he left just moments before. Theism furnishes all intellectual pursuit with optimism and meaning and context. As C. S. Lewis put it, “thirst was made for water; inquiry for truth.”10
According to the Bible, human beings are created in God’s image, which includes a capacity for curiosity, reasoning, and learning, among other things.11 When King Solomon asked God for wisdom, God was pleased and granted him understanding of trees and animals—the natural world—among other things.12 The Bible places great value in the acquisition of knowledge and understanding: “Blessed are those who find wisdom, those who gain understanding, for she is more profitable than silver and yields better returns than gold.”13
Even while it affirms the life of the mind, however, the Bible warns against intellectualism and any attempt to discover the ultimate meaning of life through the cumulative accrual of knowledge. King Solomon, whom we mentioned earlier, is held to be the traditional author of the biblical book of Proverbs, which extols the value of wisdom. However, he is also held to have written a book called Ecclesiastes, which warns that, by itself, wisdom is no remedy to the futility of life in a fallen world and the certainty of death. Consider these verses:
- “I said to myself, ‘Look, I have increased in wisdom more than anyone who has ruled over Jerusalem before me; I have experienced much of wisdom and knowledge.’ Then I applied myself to the understanding of wisdom, and also of madness and folly, but I learned that this, too, is a chasing after the wind. For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.” —Ecclesiastes 1:16–18
- “For the wise, like the fool, will not be long remembered; the days have already come when both have been forgotten. Like the fool, the wise too must die!” —Ecclesiastes 2:16
- “Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.” —Ecclesiastes 12:12
For Christians, then, knowledge has great value, but it is not the meat and drink of life, nor the ultimate answer to life’s ultimate riddles. In science, however, knowledge is key.
Has Science Replaced God?
At the very end of his fascinating book A Brief History of Time, after outlining the search for a grand unified theory that explains the entire universe, Stephen Hawking says this:
Even if there is only one possible unified theory, it is just a set of rules and equations. What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe? The usual approach of science of constructing a mathematical model cannot answer the questions of why there should be a universe for the model to describe. Why does the universe go to the bother of existing?14
Many people in contemporary culture have come to think that the more science advances in explaining the universe, the less need there is for a God. Carl Sagan once said, “As science advances, there seems to be less and less for God to do. . . . Whatever it is we cannot explain lately is attributed to God. . . . And then, after a while, we explain it, and so that’s no longer God’s realm.”15
But Hawking’s statement exposes the superficiality of this perspective: Even if we could exhaustively understand everything that happens in the physical universe, we would still have to face the larger philosophical questions. Why is there a universe in the first place? What makes its laws and gives them their consistency?
In the Christian view, since science studies the natural universe and the biblical understanding of God situates him outside the natural universe, advances in science will never displace God. On the contrary, scientific advance makes the possibility of God more intriguing and more urgent. Greater knowledge about how the universe works makes more pressing the further question of why it works that way—and why it is here at all. Expecting scientific advance to displace the need for a Creator is like getting two-thirds of the way through Hamlet and expecting the ending of the play to displace the need for Shakespeare.
How Old Is the Universe?
One reason people often perceive science to be at odds with faith is the common misconception that the Bible teaches that the universe is just a few thousand years old. In reality, the Bible makes no claims about the age of the universe, and most thoughtful Christians have no difficulty accepting the scientific evidence that the universe is much, much older.16
Evidence for an older earth is not limited to radiometric dating. Everywhere we look we find evidence of an older earth and an even older universe. The very light we see from many of the stars in our sky comes from millions of light years away and, using powerful telescopes, we can see light from galaxies billions of light years away.
There is nothing in the Bible that contradicts this data. When we approach a passage in the Bible—say, Genesis 1—with a contemporary question in mind, it is easy to overextend the text’s meaning, or apply it to issues it was never intended to address, or impose later categories of thought onto it that would be foreign to the original writer and readers. The Genesis 1 creation narrative is not a technical, scientific report written to resolve modern origin debates. Rather, the creation narrative was written—part and parcel with the stories that follow it—to the first- and second-generation Israelites about to enter the land of Canaan in order to explain to them their identity as the covenant people of the God of the whole world. The main point is this: “You know the God who just led you out of Egypt and gave you his law? Well, he’s no tribal deity! He is the Creator God of the whole world.” To make this point, the author of the text employs a literary device (or framework) in which he compares God’s creative work to a human workweek.17
Believing in the truthfulness of Scripture is not tantamount to believing that the days of Genesis 1 are 24-hour periods, or even that they are sequential—no more than believing in the truthfulness of Psalm 104:5 is tantamount to believing in geo-centrism. We must interpret the Bible according to its original intended meaning.
One of the focal points of debate concerning science and faith is the question of human origins. However, the common antithesis between the terms can be misleading. “Creation” and “evolution” are not parallel, mutually exclusive theories of origins. In fact, nearly every advocate of intelligent design (ID)—from the Bible-thumping fundamentalist to an accomplished scientist like Francis Collins—acknowledges that evolution is one mechanism of creation. Some think evolution can explain almost everything; others believe it explains very little; and a good number, such as myself, fall somewhere in between.
In our setting, however, the word “evolution” is often used to refer not merely to a biological process, but to an all-encompassing philosophical worldview that everything can be explained by random mutation and natural selection. In this sense, “evolution” is indeed an alternative to creation, because it defines the entire process as random and unsupervised. In fact, in 1996, the National Association of Biology Teachers defined evolution as an “unsupervised, impersonal, unpredictable, and natural process.”18
While basically all theists accept the notion of evolution as change over time, no thoughtful theist can accept this more technical definition of evolution, because no theist believes the story of life is an “unsupervised” process. In this light, we can see that the ultimate divide is not between creation and evolution per se, but between teleological accounts of origins (which may assign a greater or lesser role to evolution) and blind, chance accounts of origins. The real divide is philosophical, not mechanical. The Christian faith is nowhere at odds with the notion that species adapt over time. But it does affirm that, whatever process God employed for different things, all things are created by the purposeful intention of God. The Bible is pro-science, but it does oppose the philosophical naturalism implicit in much of contemporary Western scientific thought.19
Different Christians fall in different places on the “How much can evolution explain?” spectrum. Personally, I find it impossible to fathom how naturalistic causes could account for, say, the first cell. When it comes to supposing further that love, reason, and my favorite pieces of literature all came about ultimately via randomness and chance, I’m completely engulfed with incredulity. Yet this view is the logical conclusion of the reigning paradigm among much of the current scientific establishment.
In fact, it is often claimed that intelligent design is not really science at all, but creationism in disguise. But ID is only not science if science is limited to that which has naturalistic, random causation. But this is a rather restrictive definition of science that is not itself based on any empirical observations of the world. This is not the definition of science under which Newton or Kepler or Einstein worked, nor is it clear why intelligent causes must be out of bounds in order for something to be studied scientifically.
Opponents of ID often claim that there is no real debate among scientists about evolution; they claim that ID is really “pseudo-science” that no credible scientist takes seriously. But this is simply wrong. There are a growing number in the scientific community with strong academic credentials who question whether naturalistic evolution can explain all the facts—Michael Behe, Stephen Meyer, Jonathan Wells, and David Berlinski, to name a few. There is only no debate if you dismiss one side as nonexistent. Though it may be a lopsided debate, to claim that there is none is simply untrue.
Robust debate between proponents of the intelligent design movement and advocates of philosophical naturalism should be encouraged. If the truth is really as obvious as some voices claim, then debate should settle it fairly clearly. But labeling one side “pseudo-science” seems more likely to reinforce divisions than engender mutual understanding. Whether ID is right or wrong, people should be given all the facts, hear all the arguments, be free to ask any questions, and follow the evidence wherever it leads. This is the essence of free academic inquiry. The potential philosophical or religious implications of a viewpoint should not preclude any findings.
For example, take the genesis of the first cell, or the sudden diversification in the fossil record known as the Cambrian Explosion. Scientists are not in agreement as to how one explains these phenomena. In the face of this uncertainty, why shouldn’t we consider all possibilities, regardless of their potential implications? Aren’t open-mindedness and a willingness to question the status quo at the heart of the spirit of true science? Isn’t this what allowed Darwin to do what he did in the first place?
Adam and Eve
But what about the Bible’s teaching on Adam and Eve? Some Christians believe in a literal Adam and Eve living in a literal Garden of Eden. Others read the Bible figuratively and believe that Adam and Eve were not real people. There are several reasons, however, to take the Genesis account of Adam and Eve very seriously.
First of all, while Genesis 1:1–2:3 is quasi-poetic, Genesis 2:4 and following is a narrative of the same genre as the rest of the book of Genesis and much of the Pentateuch.20 It was clearly intended to be as historical as the story of Abraham in Genesis 12 was. Moreover, the Apostle Paul placed great emphasis on Adam as a parallel figure to Christ in his theology.21 If there was no Adam, much of his argument in these chapters would break down, just as it would if Christ were not a historical figure. Furthermore, if we abandon a historical Adam and Eve, we have some pretty thorny theological questions to face: At what point did the soul develop—if it did? When did evil enter the human race, and with it human death?
Moreover, believing in Adam and Eve as historical individuals is not necessarily at odds with all forms of evolution. An increasing number of Christians are advocating various accounts of how the creation of Adam and Eve might fit together with the existence of other hominids.22 Meanwhile, the great value of the account of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2–3 is not dependent on the precise relation of Adam and Eve to modern science. Regardless of how all the details are interpreted and what harmonization with modern evolutionary theory may be required, Genesis 2–3 provides answers to some of the most important questions concerning our existence—including our awareness of right and wrong, our sense that something has gone terribly awry with the human race, and our recurring desire for redemption.
In his commentary on the book of Genesis, Derek Kidner makes the following observation:
The accounts of the world [of science and Scripture] are as distinct (and each as legitimate) as an artist’s portrait and an anatomist’s diagram, of which no composite picture will be satisfactory, for their common ground is only in the total reality to which they both attend. . . . [Scripture’s] bold selectiveness, like that of a great painting, is its power.23
To put what I am trying to say in Kidner’s terms: We don’t need to figure out the anatomist’s diagram in all its details in order to appreciate fully the artist’s portrait. Whatever that anatomist’s diagram may or may not show, the artist’s portrait already rings true to the human heart and conscience and sufficiently says what must be said, theologically, about human origins. Its bold selectiveness is its great power.
The Cosmological Argument
There are a number of testimonies to the reality of God within the natural order. For the sake of time and space, let’s consider just one of them. It is perhaps the most basic and intuitive reason for believing the universe requires a Creator, and it can be broached by asking one of the most basic and important questions ever asked: Why is there something rather than nothing?
The cosmological argument states essentially this: “1) Everything that exists has a cause of its existence. 2) The universe exists. Therefore, 3) The universe has a cause of its existence.”24
Modern cosmology has that the universe is not eternal nor absolute. Space and time are relative and interdependent; the space–time universe is finite and contingent. In light of the kind of universe we seem to find ourselves in, the most obvious question to ask is simply this: Where did it all come from? If it hasn’t always been here, how did it come to be?
According to standard Big Bang cosmology, the universe came into being out of nothing roughly 13 billion years ago. Before this event, there was absolutely nothing—not even empty space. It’s impossible to conceive of real nothingness. When we try, we usually think of blackness or darkness, but blackness and darkness are each something—the opposites of light and color and whiteness.
To suppose that the Big Bang simply went “bang” and arbitrarily popped the universe into existence from nothing is, ironically, quite a leap of faith. It goes against every natural intuition we have—the very intuitions which drive the scientific enterprise. There must be something “behind” the universe, so to speak. There must be a cause.
In a notable 2009 debate with William Lane Craig at Biola University, Christopher Hitchens responded to Craig’s cosmological argument (the Kalam version)25 with the standard reply: If everything needs a cause, what caused God? Who designed the Designer? But this misses the point. The cosmological argument does not argue that everything needs a cause. It says that everything that begins to exist needs a cause. All finite, contingent reality needs a cause. God, by definition, is a different kind of reality—necessary and eternal and uncaused. One can certainly deny that such a reality exists, but then the thing being denied is understood to be the uncaused Causer, the unmoved Mover. Asking who caused him is a category mistake; it’s like asking, “How long is eternity?” or “How big is infinity?” The whole point of the cosmological argument is to demonstrate the need for an Uncaused Cause—something outside the system.
Whether the cosmological argument gets you to a personal Creator is less obvious. But it suggests there is some kind of cause, and it certainly opens the door to the possibility that this cause is a personal God. After all, I would argue that it would be quite surprising if the cause of the universe were less than personal, beautiful, and intelligent, since the universe contains persons, beauty, and intelligence. Effect is generally not greater than the cause.
One of the most interesting and open-minded perspectives on the intersection of science and faith was that of Albert Einstein. In his celebrated 2007 biography of Einstein, Walter Isaacson devoted one chapter to Einstein’s religious views, entitled “Einstein’s God.”
Einstein could be a called a kind of mystical Deist. Let me explain what I mean by this. Einstein was a Deist; he believed in an impersonal “God” who structured the universe but does not intervene in it or take interest in humans. For example, he once said, “I believe in Spinoza’s God, who reveals himself in the lawful harmony of all that exists, but not in a God, who concerns himself with the fate and the doings of mankind.”26 Yet his beliefs were also mystical; he frequently relapsed into personal language when talking of God, and his sense of reverence before the immensity of “God” seemed to border on religious sentiment. Einstein said several things that reveal this. To name just a few:
- “A spirit is manifest in the laws of the Universe—a spirit vastly superior to that of man, and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble.”27
- “Human beings, vegetables, or cosmic dust, we all dance to a mysterious tune intoned in the distance by an invisible player.”28
- “Try and penetrate with our limited means the secrets of nature and you will find that, behind all the discernible laws and connections, there remains something subtle, intangible, and inexplicable.”29
Whatever label we give to Einstein’s point of view, it’s clear that he has nothing of the science-has-disproved-God mentality so common among contemporary scientists. While he certainly rejected the idea of a personal God as this ulterior force, he did not do so on scientific grounds.
In an interview with George Viereck just before Einstein’s fiftieth birthday, Einstein answered two important questions very directly:
Viereck: You accept the historical existence of Jesus?
Einstein: Unquestionably! No one can read the Gospels without feeling the actual presence of Jesus. His personality pulsates in every word. No myth is filled with such life.
Viereck: Do you believe in God?
Einstein: I’m not an atheist. The problem involved is too vast for our limited minds. We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many languages. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but doesn’t know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God.30
Wisdom Entered the World
The Christian view finds much to affirm in Einstein’s perspective. The metaphor of a child in a vast library is indeed appropriate for our relation to God, given our smallness and frailty when compared to reality. But the Bible claims there is more to be said about the whole matter. To pick up the metaphor, the Bible claims that the Librarian showed up, walked over to the child, and offered to explain the meaning of the books.
According to the Bible, what is whispered and hinted at in the stars above is proclaimed in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. “No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.”31 The central message of the Bible is that the God who made everything has become a part of his creation in the person of Christ. In Christ, he is revealing himself to the world—and, what’s more, reconciling the world to himself. There is a friendly Librarian walking around the library.
Suppose for a moment that, at least hypothetically, something like God exists—an infinitely beautiful and loving Person who made the world. Where might this God reveal himself? Where on the grid might he show up? The Christian view is that God has hidden himself in our world. The Bible claims that “in [Christ] are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.”32 That means that if we want to find God, we have to be willing to look where we would least expect him. In the Christian view, God did not come with pomp and parade, with accolades and audience. No, he arrived in a small, unimportant place—a dirty manger in a small village, to be precise.
The Christian doctrine of the Incarnation—the notion that God became man—has extraordinary implications for the (otherwise understandable) skepticism implicit in Einstein’s metaphor. It means that if we want to understand this vast library, we don’t need to learn how to read all the languages; we need only to seek out the Librarian.
The God who made everything has come very close to us. The Highest One took the lowest place. He not only descended down into a manger but ultimately onto a shameful cross, dying in love for the forgiveness of our sins. That is where the Maker of Einstein’s vast library is found. “I live in a high and holy place,” God said, “but also with the one who is contrite and lowly in spirit.”33
Dealing with Doubt
Perhaps as you read this article, you are struggling with doubts about faith. Maybe your doubts are related to scientific issues; maybe they are related to something more personal. Maybe both. Either way, here are a few pieces of advice.
Doubt your doubts.
All doubts are based on some alternative faith. For example, imagine I say, “A real God would never hide himself; he would be obvious to see.” I’m making a statement based on what I believe God must be like. How do I know that proposition is true? Put simply, I don’t.
Bring your doubts into the light and interrogate them, just as they are interrogating your faith. Let it be a fair fight. Many doubts that initially feel significant crumble on closer investigation of their hidden premises.
Examine your doubts.
Issues of doubt are never merely intellectual. In the Bible, faith and obedience are always connected. Struggles of faith are often related to struggles of obedience, and struggles of obedience are often related to struggles of faith.
Don’t assume the best way to overcome your doubt is to have it answered on an intellectual level. If you’re open to it, pray. Ask God to help you. Do your best to live in response to the light he has already given you, and he will show you the next step.
See your doubts in context.
Sometimes we get so bogged down because of one question that hasn’t been answered that we forget about all the other questions that have been answered. The right inquiry is not, “Do I have all my questions answered?” You never will. The better question is: “Do I know enough to trust God?”
Where have you seen God already at work in your life? What evidence do you already see of him? See your doubts in context, and then make an informed decision based on everything you see.
A Final Note
One night during my college years I was up late in the dorm’s computer lab, wrestling with doubts about my faith as a result of some science and philosophy courses I was taking. I remember vividly what it felt like to struggle with doubt. It is quite an unnerving experience—like when you get dizzy and the floor starts shifting under your feet, or when you watch The Sixth Sense for the first time, or when something compels you to wonder suddenly if someone you’ve always trusted is actually untrustworthy. If you’re struggling with doubt, you know what a painful, jarring experience it can be.
In the throes of it, I had a breakthrough and wrote out the following in my journal. I go back to this passage again and again. I share it in the hope that it might help you:
Why does anything exist at all? This is the great mystery, says Wittgenstein. Why is there something rather than nothing? Where did the universe come from? What is the Beginning which stands behind all other beginnings, the Reality which gives ground to all other realities? At every level, at every angle, we find ourselves confronted with the necessity of what Barth calls “the Wholly Other.” The very fact that we are here to ponder the question is already the greatest miracle, the greatest improbability. Unless theism is presupposed, all thought and action becomes absurd—without purpose and suspended over nothingness. Unless the infinite exists, the finite would never have come to be. What sense does the painting make unless there is paper on which it is drawn? God is the great truth; we are his dream.
Or, as our friend Albert Einstein put it: “The child knows someone must have written those books.”34
- Steven Jay Gould, “Nonoverlapping Magisteria,” The Unofficial Stephen Jay Gould Archive, http://www.stephenjaygould.org/library/gould_noma.html.
- Of course, this third alternative has many possible configurations. To put the relationship metaphorically, science and faith might be considered twin brothers fighting side by side in common aim, or two different alien species attempting to dialogue with each other, or an introvert and extravert complementing each other—and on and on we could go. This is why I suggest the third camp is the most interesting. Enemies and strangers are relatively uniform relationships, but there are all different kinds of friendships.
- The Holy Bible, New International Version © 2011, Psalm 19:1.
- Science (from the Latin word for knowledge, scientia) can be defined as the study of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.
- In earlier centuries, the term “naturalist” referred to what we today call scientists.
- One of the common misconceptions in contemporary discussions of faith and reason is that religious people have faith while secular people do not. But, as the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard pointed out, all finite and temporal creatures live on the basis of un-provable assumptions, and thus necessarily operate from faith. Two telling examples of human activities that require faith are reason and science. We cannot use reason to prove reason, because that is circular. Believing in the validity of reason is ultimately an act of faith, as G. K. Chesterton observed: “Reason is itself a matter of faith. It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all” (G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy [New York: Image Books, 2001], 29). Similarly, C. S. Lewis argued that science can only assume, rather than prove, the regularity of the laws of nature. Thus even this requires faith. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, (1952; reprint, New York: HarperCollins, 2001).
- See The Holy Bible, Colossians 1:16.
- For a fuller discussion of Christianity’s view of the material world in comparison with other religions, see book 2, chapter 1 (“The Rival Conceptions of God”) of C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity. Lewis put it simply: “[God] likes matter. He invented it.” Lewis, 64.
- For example, think of Johann Kepler, Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton, Blaise Pascal, Michael Faraday, Robert Boyle, Galileo Galilei, and Louis Pasteur, many of whom were avid students of the Bible and theology as well as science.
- By contrast, it is worth asking how thought can ultimately be trusted to arrive at objective truth in an atheistic worldview. According to a purely naturalistic account of human origins, everything in life is explained according to natural selection and random mutation. Therefore our brains and our thoughts are the way they are simply because that is what helped our ancestors survive. If this is the case, it is difficult to see how our rational thought and scientific observation can be fully trusted. Why should “survival value” always correspond to “objective truth”? For a fuller expression of this argument, see chapter 3 of C. S. Lewis’s book Miracles.
- See The Holy Bible, Genesis 1:26–28.
- Ibid., 1 Kings 3:9–10, 4:33.
- The Holy Bible, Proverbs 3:13–14.
- Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time, updated and expanded 10th anniversary ed. (New York: Bantam Books, 1996), 190.
- Carl Sagan, The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God (New York: Penguin Group, 2007), 64.
- See Tim Keller, The Reason for God (New York: Dutton, 2008). On page 262, Keller notes this historical fact: “Despite widespread impression to the contrary, both inside and outside the church, modern Creation Science was not the traditional response of conservative and evangelical Protestants in the nineteenth century when Darwin’s theory first became known. There was widespread acceptance of the fact that Genesis 1 may be been speaking of long ages rather than literal days. R. A. Torrey, the fundamentalist editor of The Fundamentals (published from 1910–1915, which gave definition to the term ‘fundamentalist’), said that it was possible ‘to believe thoroughly in the infallibility of the Bible and still be an evolutionist of a certain type. . . .’ The man who defined the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy, B. B. Warfield of Princeton (d. 1921) believed that God may have used something like evolution to bring about life-forms.”
- For more information, see Meredith G. Kline, “Because It Had Not Rained,” Westminster Theological Journal 20 (May 1958): 146–57; Henri Blocher, In the Beginning: The Opening Chapters of Genesis (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1984).
- “NABT unveils new statement on teaching evolution,” American Biology Teacher 58 (January 1996): 61–62. The NATB has since altered this exact wording, but maintains the notion that evolution occurs without plan or purpose.
- Naturalism is the philosophy that nothing exists beyond the natural world.
- The Pentateuch refers to the first five books of the Bible, whose authorship is traditionally credited to Moses.
- See The Holy Bible, Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15.
- See works such as Tim Keller, “Creation, Evolution, and Christian Laypeople,” http://biologos.org/uploads/projects/Keller_white_paper.pdf, accessed July 15, 2013; C. John Collins, Adam and Eve: Who They Were and Why You Should Care (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011); C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: HarperOne, 2009), chapter 5.
- Derek Kidner, Genesis: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1967), 31.
- “The Cosmological Argument,” Philosophy of Religion, http://www.philosophyofreligion.info/theistic-proofs/the-cosmological-argument/.
- The Kalam argument, a variation of the cosmological argument, was developed by medieval Muslim philosophers and has been popularized in recent years by William Lane Craig.
- Walter Isaacson, Einstein: His Life and Universe (Simon & Schuster, 2007), 388–389.
- Ibid., 388.
- Ibid., 392.
- Ibid., 384.
- Ibid., 386.
- The Holy Bible, John 1:18.
- Ibid., Colossians 2:3.
- Ibid., Isaiah 57:15.
- Isaacson, 384.
- Photo Credit: Vadim Georgiev / Shutterstock.com.
What Is Truth?
Join us in a humble conversation around this critically important question.Jesus answered . . . “In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” “What is truth?” retorted Pilate.1
Truth is a loaded topic. But as the quote above suggests, debate about the meaning of truth is nothing new. In fact, some of the earliest literature we have probes the depths of the great question, “What is truth?”
Over 2,300 years ago, the Greek philosopher Aristotle mused that truth must correspond to reality—to what we can see and know.2 In subsequent millennia, countless definitions of truth have been proposed. These include the coherence theory, constructivist theory, pragmatic theory, consensus theory, performance theory, and many, many others.
A quick scan of a contemporary newspaper or magazine reveals fierce debate about what’s true in politics, relationships, the media, sports, and religion. And, for better or worse, responses to these questions are about as numerous as there are people to respond. “What is truth?” is not an easy question to answer.
We instruct the youngest members of our society, “Tell the truth!” We implore the oldest, “Please pass on the wisdom (i.e., truth) you’ve discovered!” But what do these sentiments really mean?
The pursuit of truth is indelibly written on the hearts of every human being. And though the pursuit is universal, agreement on the essence of truth is not. Unfortunately, the more fundamental the question, the more emotionally charged the issue becomes.
In recent times, truth has been questioned perhaps like never before. In fact, rather than proposing a new “theory of truth,” as in days gone by, philosophers are actually questioning the whole pursuit of truth itself.
Friedrich Nietzsche, the renowned German philosopher, set off this trend by suggesting, “‘Truth’ is nothing more than the invention of fixed conventions for merely practical purposes, especially those of repose, security and consistence.”3 For Nietzsche, truth is merely what works or what a person could use to suit his or her own interests.
Fast-forward more than one hundred years, and many people—whether knowingly or not—have adopted Nietzsche’s philosophy. Rather than viewing truth as corresponding to something outside of us—that which we can see, touch, or measure—truth is defined as something within us.
From this stance, truth is highly subjective and relative. A signature of postmodern thought, this relativistic view of truth is a reaction to modernism and its tendency to recognize only objective truth.
Religion in particular seems to be one of the most explosive—and consequently avoided—truth discussions. And for good reasons: Religious people are often hard-headed and closed-minded about their opinions of what’s true and what’s not. Add to this the fact that religion is often linked to enmity and even violence, and it’s easy to see why truth is such a hot-button issue.
Yet the fact of the matter is that the pursuit of truth will not go away. As history has demonstrated and human nature bears out, we will always be drawn to consider what’s true and what’s not.
So how does one rationally consider these claims to determine the truth when it comes to emotional issues like religion and politics?
There are functionally two components to any conversation. One is content: “What do you believe about X?” The second is posture: “How do you state your opinion on X?”
More simply put, there is what you say and how you say it. Of course, both components of conversation can elicit highly emotional responses. But most often the second component, posture, is the culprit. When someone mandates his or her opinion in a judgmental, triumphant, or condescending way, it’s hard not to become defensive.
Why, then, are many people turned off when Christians talk about truth claims?
It usually has little to do with the actual content of their presentation. Generally speaking, people are willing to consider the opinions of others, even if they disagree with them at first. Unfortunately, the posture with which Christians deliver their opinions is often disrespectful and lacking in humility.4
In fact, a recent study of young people’s opinions reveals that over 85 percent believe Christians are judgmental and hypocritical.5 Because of this, many Christians are beginning to take a more humble approach to discussions around faith and truth.
In his book Blue Like Jazz, Don Miller recounts a time when he and his friends created a confession booth in the middle of their college campus. Ironically, the purpose of the confession booth was not to hear confessions; it was to confess their own faults to their fellow students: “We are going to confess that, as followers of Jesus, we have not been very loving; we have been bitter, and for that we are sorry. . . . We will ask them to forgive us, and we will tell them that in our selfishness, we have misrepresented Jesus.”6
Can I make a definitive statement about what I believe to be true? Yes. Will my definition necessarily equate to yours? No.
Though a viewpoint—a “truth”—that is different from our own can be alarming at first, this is no reason to cease to communicate and live harmoniously. To discover the answer to the question of what truth is, all people—regardless of religion, ethnicity, or age—must be willing to engage in a humble dialogue.
I invite you to join this conversation by sharing your thoughts and questions.
- The Holy Bible, New International Version © 2011, John 18:37b–38.
- “To say of what is that it is not, or of what is not that it is, is false, while to say of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not, is true.” Aristotle, Metaphysics (Sioux Falls, SD: NuVision Publications, 2009), section 1011b25, 104.
- Robert Wicks, “Friedrich Nietzsche,” section 2: Early Writings: 1872–1876, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, May 30, 1997, last updated April 29, 2011, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/nietzsche/#EarWri187187.
- Ironically, one passage frequently quoted by Christians is 1 Peter 3:15, which says, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” Unfortunately, what’s so often omitted is the last half of that verse, which says, “But do this with gentleness and respect.”
- David Kinnamon and Gabe Lyons, UnChristian (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2007), 27.
- Donald Miller, Blue Like Jazz (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2003), 118.
- Photo Credit: pefostudio5 / Shutterstock.com.
What Is Atheism?
What is atheism? What do atheists believe? Is atheism a religion?
Have you ever heard the phrase, “You can’t prove a negative”? Because nonbelief can’t be described in the same way that belief can, summing up atheism can be a difficult project—akin to herding cats.
Atheism has no central rule structure. Since no one can be excommunicated from atheism, nonbelievers are free to hold a huge variety of opinions, convictions, and personal philosophies. Still, there are a few central threads that tie together most atheists and define them as followers of a non-religion.
Who Are Atheists?
Within the United States, atheists are most likely to be young, male, white, and college-educated. A Pew research poll found that 67 percent of self-described atheists are male and 38 percent are between the ages of 18 and 29. As of 2012, nonbelievers in general made up 19.6 percent of the American population, but of that number, only a fraction actually call themselves atheists. More common labels are “unaffiliated,” “no religious preference,” or “agnostic.”1
Many atheists frequently cite advanced education as a trigger for their lack of belief. Those with advanced degrees in science, medicine, and philosophy are more likely than the general public to describe themselves as atheists.2
Throughout our lives, we all run the risk of encountering things that will challenge our worldviews and conflict with the beliefs we hold closely. The years when we pursue advanced education are those during which we most frequently strengthen, adapt, or change our belief systems.
The Atheist Worldview
The central idea in atheism is found in the name: a-theism, using the prefix “a-,” meaning “without,” and “theism,” belief in a God or gods. So, simply put, atheism means without belief in a deity. This is at first obvious, but it’s worth pointing out that the word is distinct from more hostile terms like antitheism, meaning against a deity.
Though this is a common misconception about atheists, atheists are not angry with or rebelling against a god. Atheists simply don’t think that a god exists. Atheists are not angry at God for not existing in the same way that believers aren’t angry at their toothbrush for failing to tap dance. It just isn’t the way the world works from the atheistic perspective.
For better or worse, religion has played a huge part in shaping the world as it is today. It is for this reason that many atheists define their behavior and beliefs as a reaction against something: against a god, against a church, against religious families or societies. It is primarily for this reason that atheists have a reputation for being argumentative or militant.
Whether this kind of behavior is worthwhile or not is up to the individual to decide. But the fact remains that, at least in the United States, atheists are frequently better-informed about religion than many casual and even some devoted believers.3 Atheists choose to live their lives without a god for many reasons, but those reasons are almost never borne out of ignorance or a failure to hear the gospel.
Atheists and Society
Throughout history, nonbelievers of all kinds have been persecuted by the majority belief system.4 Though most religions have been oppressed in certain places and times, in the Western world the last 1,500 years have seen atheists banished, silenced, tortured, and killed.
Modern societies don’t tolerate religious violence—thank goodness—but persistent distrust of atheists remains. More than half of Americans consider atheists “threatening.”5
Atheists face the highest prejudice for political office—the average American voter is more likely to vote for a homosexual person or a Muslim than to put a nonbeliever in office.6 There are seven US states where atheists are barred from holding public office altogether.7 Atheists are the fastest growing religious minority in America but are still underrepresented in government.8
Giving Life Meaning Without God
But the hardest part of being an atheist, in my experience, is arriving at a meaning for life. You read that right: I'm an atheist. And in honest conversations with Christians and others who ask me about this, I say that, for me, the most difficult aspect of life without belief in a deity is understanding why we are all here.
Though we all sometimes need a little help getting out of bed in the morning, believers have a reason for being built right into the religion of their choice. Christians go out into the world each day to work toward glorifying God. Hindus try to improve themselves so that their next reincarnation will be a happier one closer to being free from a cycle of rebirth in an illusory world.
For atheists, the question of the meaning of life is much harder, more open-ended, and more deeply personal. The reasons we find for getting out of bed in the morning are the same as most believers: our families need us to provide; our jobs need us to work; our communities need us to serve.
Beyond those immediate needs, though, the question becomes more difficult. Without our help our communities will fail, but . . . so what? This is a question that most introspective atheists will struggle with once or several times during their lives.
Noted atheist and author Christopher Hitchens wrote on this topic in his memoir. Hitchens took great offense at being asked about his thoughts on the meaning of his life—something that I don’t completely agree with. The meaning found in believers’ lives, after all, can be investigated in their holy books. With atheists, the only way to find out is to ask.
Regardless, Hitchens thought of life in this way: “A life that partakes even a little of friendship, love, irony, humor, parenthood, literature, and music, and the chance to take part in battles for the liberation of others cannot be called ‘meaningless.’”9
For me, the answer has always come down to helping others. Through charity, friendship, and love, I try to make a positive impact on the lives around me, so that they will be in a better place to impact lives around them. In this way, maybe we can all contribute to making a species that is happier, healthier, and better than we are today.
Why should that matter? Because I want it to.
- Michael Lipka, “5 facts about atheists,” Pew Research Center, October 23, 2013, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/20https://www.exploregod.com/5-facts-about-atheists/.
- “Scientists and Belief,” Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project, November 5, 2009, http://www.pewforum.org/20https://www.exploregod.com/scientists-and-belief/.
- “U. S. Religious Knowledge Survey,” Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project, September 28, 2010, http://www.pewforum.org/20https://www.exploregod.com/u-s-religious-knowledge-survey/.
- Robert Evans, “Atheists, Humanists Suffer Persecution World Wide, Report,” Huffington Post, December 9, 2012, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/20https://www.exploregod.com/atheists-humanists-suffer_n_2268681.html.
- Hemant Mehta, “New Survey: 50% of Americans Find Atheism ‘Threatening,’” Patheos, June 26, 2013, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/20https://www.exploregod.com/new-survey-50-of-americans-find-atheism-threatening/.
- Jeffrey M. Jones, “Atheists, Muslims See Most Bias as Presidential Candidates,” Gallup, June 21, 2012, http://www.gallup.com/poll/155285/atheists-muslims-bias-presidential-candidates.aspx.
- Jones, “Atheists, Muslims.”
- “‘Nones’ on the Rise," Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project, October 9, 2012, http://www.pewforum.org/20https://www.exploregod.com/nones-on-the-rise/.
- Christopher Hitchens, Hitch 22: A Memoir (Ontario: McClelland & Stewart), 331.
- Photo Credit: Trinette Reed / Stocksy.com.
Has God Left Us to Ourselves?
Deism states that God created the world then left us on our own. Is this true?I was scarce fifteen when . . . some books against Deism fell into my hands. . . . It happened that they wrought an effect on me quite contrary to what was intended by them; for the arguments of the Deists, which were quoted to be refuted, appeared to me much stronger than the refutations; in short, I soon became a thorough Deist.Benjamin Franklin1
Franklin’s experience is not unique. During the eighteenth century, Deism was sweeping through the intellectual elite in places like England, France, and America. Many embraced this new way of understanding God and the world. Indeed, most of America’s Founding Fathers, like Franklin, were Deists.2
Deism is the belief that there is a God who created the world but does not intervene in its affairs. There are other tenets to traditional Deism, but its view of God as a distant deity is the most prominent.3 And while few actually call themselves philosophical Deists anymore, many continue to wrestle with this all-important question: Did God set the world in motion and then just leave us to ourselves?
In Favor of Deism
The idea that God set the world in motion and left it to run on its own has several strengths. For one, Deism starts with belief in God. Admittedly, relatively few people today are true atheists in the sense that they believe there is absolutely no God. The majority of people believe that a higher power does exist, and a large portion of the remainder believe we simply can’t know either way.4 Even if they call God by different names and have differing opinions on what he (or she) is like, most think that the beauty and design of nature itself are evidence that a powerful God created the world.
But despite our grand ideas about God, we all live in a world governed by predictable, scientific laws of nature. We’ve never seen an apple fall upward from a tree, or a piece of paper withstand a fire, or time move backward. And though we may use the word “miracle” now and then, hardly any of us can claim to have observed a genuine miraculous event that transcends all scientific law.
So what seems to make the most sense is the idea that God set the world in motion but now just lets it run according to the laws of physics, biology, chemistry, and such. Deism seems to correspond to our everyday human experience.
Most importantly, Deism upholds human responsibility. If God set the world in motion and has left us to ourselves, we cannot blame him for our problems. Nor can we count on him to magically fix anything. It is up to us—we hold the destinies of our lives, families, cities, and planet in our own hands. This is not only responsible; it is empowering. And many Americans, whether they espouse Christianity or some other religion, are practical Deists in this sense.5
Nevertheless, there are some compelling reasons to challenge the idea that God merely set the world in motion and then left us to our own devices. As the simplest starting point—and hear me out here—Deism is at odds with the teachings of most world religions.
For example, the Bible portrays God as very engaged in human affairs: he hears and responds to prayer, shows mercy and grace, brings justice to the oppressed, and most significantly, becomes a human himself in the person of Jesus Christ.6 Other religions, such as Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism also uphold beliefs that divinity is intimately involved in the lives of people.
Of course, this does not automatically make Deism untrue; it is entirely possible that the teachings of most world religions are incorrect. But it does reveal that the idea of God leaving the world on its own is inconsistent with religious thought and tradition throughout history and is largely a product of modern Enlightenment philosophy.
Second, at its heart, Deism understands God as remote, distant, impersonal, and unapproachable. There is no place for prayer with a God who has left us to ourselves. There is no possibility of receiving compassion, grace, sympathy, or help from him. He is only a creator—a powerful one but nothing more. Few find comfort in this view of God.
What benefit is there to God’s power if he cannot or does not help his creation? What source of hope do we have when people fail us and human systems remain unjust? In what sense can God be called a Father if he does not care about his children? And more logically speaking, what was the point of creation if God was just going to walk away?
Simply wanting a compassionate, interactive God does not make his existence true. But for many of us, the belief that we are all alone in this world just does not resonate with the deepest recesses of our souls.
Finally, the view that God has left the world on its own propagates the huge potential for human pride and fear. We believe that all success, progress, and good fortune are results of our own hard work and efforts. We pat ourselves on the back and place ever-more confidence in our own achievements. This kind of pride in the amazing nature of human progress drove the Enlightenment movement. It also came crashing down when the twentieth century revealed how “progress” could lead to world wars, economic collapse, ethnic cleansing, and atomic bombs.
It’s of course possible that God created the world, set it in motion, and then left us to ourselves. It is also possible that God desires to be engaged and involved in our lives. In the absence of indisputable proof, both viewpoints require faith. The question is this: In which view will we put our faith?
- Benjamin Franklin, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, and Company, 1886), 77–78.
- For excellent background information on this issue, see Steven Waldman, Founding Faith: How Our Founding Fathers Forged a Radical New Approach to Religious Liberty (New York: Random House, 2008).
- A helpful background of the historical origins of Deism as it emerged from Christianity is found in James C. Livingston, Modern Christian Thought, Volume 1: The Enlightenment and the Nineteenth Century, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006).
- “The Global Religious Landscape,” Pew Forum, December 18, 2012, http://www.pewforum.org/20https://www.exploregod.com/global-religious-landscape-exhttps://www.exploregod.com>
- See Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005) for their assertion that young people embrace what they call Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.
- For a treatment of how the Bible portrays God as intimately involved in the world’s affairs, see N. T. Wright, Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense (San Francisco: Harper, 2006).
- Photo Credit: ssguy / Shutterstock.com.
Where Is God?
How can God be active in our lives if he’s not here with us?We’re already totally in the presence of God. What’s missing is awareness.David Brenner
Have you ever looked around you and wondered, Where is God?
Perhaps, for you, it was a particularly gorgeous day outside; you could feel the afternoon sun warming your whole body. Maybe you asked yourself, Is God here in this beauty? Or perhaps it was the opposite. A trying time followed by another challenge . . . and another and another. Did you survey your life, shake your head, and wonder, Where is God in all this pain?
Maybe you’ve heard that God lives in heaven. But heaven can seem awfully far away, can’t it? In fact, sometimes it feels like God isn’t around at all—especially when bad things happen in our lives.
Yet the Bible frequently describes God as a father who protects and provides for his “sons and daughters."1 But if God is a spiritual father who is active in his children’s lives, where is he? How can he be so far from his children?
To begin, we must not fall into the trap of thinking about God in the same way that we think of earthly things. God is not subject to human limitation. If someone asks us where we are, there is only one truthful answer; we can be in only one place at a time.
The same is not true of God. God can be everywhere at once. Though it can be hard to grasp, this is what people of faith believe. They believe God is present with everyone at the same time. Simultaneously, God is in heaven.
The Christian concept of the Trinity is key here. Christians understand God as “three-in-one”: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.2 These three persons are distinct but united; three persons form one God.
How does this help us answer the question of where God is? Well, let’s take a look.
God the Father: God Is in Heaven
Within the Bible, God the Father is described as “the God of heaven,”3 and heaven is called “the house of God.”4 In fact, in Isaiah 66:1, God himself says, “Heaven is my throne and the earth is my footstool.”
There are countless more instances that demonstrate God’s residence in heaven. Even God’s own words reflect this. He promises that he “will rain down bread from heaven” for the sake of the Israelites.5 Then, after revealing the Ten Commandments, God says to Moses, “Tell the Israelites this: ‘You have seen for yourselves that I have spoken to you from heaven.’”6
After the Exodus, the Hebrew prophets repeatedly entreated the Lord to “hear [their prayers] from heaven.”7 They were confident of God’s location.
But this didn’t end with the Old Testament. Even Jesus instructed us to call God “our Father in heaven” when we pray.8 In John 17:1, Jesus himself looks “toward heaven” and prays to the Father.
Christians believe that, as our Father in heaven, God loves us like a parent loves his children. But how can God actively love us as a father if he is in heaven and we’re on earth?
God the Son: God Is on Earth
There are some instances within the Old Testament of God the Father coming down to earth—perhaps most notably as a pillar of smoke or fire when leading the Israelites out of Egypt.9 However, Christians point to one main example of God’s presence on earth: Jesus.
The gospels claim that God the Son came to earth in the person of Jesus Christ. This is why Jesus is sometimes called Immanuel, which means “God with us.”10
The gospels describe Jesus as a human person who was born at a particular time in history, a person who lived in a specific part of the world for a certain period of time. But Jesus was not just a human; he was “conceived . . . from the Holy Spirit.”11 As Christians often put it, Jesus was fully God and fully man. Jesus is God in the flesh.
Throughout the New Testament, Jesus is described as the Son of God.12 The Bible tells us that Jesus lived among us, died for our sins, was resurrected three days later, and ascended into heaven to sit at the right hand of God the Father.13
Though this may seem strange, the most important question to ask here is this: Why would God come to earth as a human being at all? According to the Bible, Jesus came to “save his people from their sins.”14 God became a human person for our salvation.
Yes, the Bible clearly says that Jesus lived on earth. And yes, the Bible also clearly says that Jesus died.15 But the good news, according to the New Testament, is this: Jesus did not remain dead. The gospels say that on the third day after the crucifixion, Jesus conquered death and was resurrected.16 After this, Jesus remained with his disciples for several weeks, teaching them and encouraging them.
Eventually he told them he had to go to his Father’s house to prepare a place for them.17 Jesus gathered his disciples, spoke to them a final time, and then was “taken up into heaven.”18
Yet that’s still not the end of the story. The Bible tells us that Christ will “appear a second time.”19 “The Lord himself will come down from heaven. . . . And so we will be with the Lord forever.”20 Now, in heaven, Jesus waits for his time to return.
But what about in the meantime? Sure, Jesus was once on earth—but now he’s in heaven. How does this help us in the present?
God the Spirit: God Is Everywhere
Before Jesus ascended to heaven, he promised that he would not leave believers entirely alone. Jesus assured the disciples, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever. . . . [and] the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.”21
The Holy Spirit—God the Spirit—is the final person of the Trinity. After Jesus’ death, God the Father sent the Spirit as a source of strength, direction, and comfort in this troubled world.22 Christians believe that through the Spirit, God continues to guide his followers who are here on earth.
The Holy Spirit is present everywhere, both on earth and in heaven. Psalm 139:7–10 shows us this:Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
From these verses, Christians conclude that God is present everywhere, actively loving, guiding, and protecting his people.
So what does the Holy Spirit do? The Holy Spirit “will guide you into all the truth.”23 The Spirit provides gifts “of wisdom and of understanding . . . of counsel and of might . . . [and] of the knowledge and fear of the Lord” to God’s people.24 Christians are to rely on this inner sense of God’s direction when it comes to making wise decisions. Isaiah 30:21 says, “Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, ‘This is the way; walk in it.’”
Jesus told his disciples that they would know God the Spirit, for “he lives with you and will be in you.”25 God the Spirit is an active presence in the lives of God’s people—the Spirit is everywhere in all of God’s people. The Spirit guides us, spiritually nurtures us, and transforms us from people who once lived for ourselves into people who live “for him who died for them and was raised again.”26
Everywhere at Once
So which is it? Is God in heaven or is God everywhere on earth? Well, the answer is both.
God is not merely in heaven. God is here, actively participating in our lives—whether or not we always recognize his presence. God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit together show us that even in the worst of times, God has not abandoned us.
On days when it seems that God is nowhere to be found, may you find comfort in these words: “Acknowledge and take heart this day that the Lord is God in heaven above and on the earth below.”27
- The Holy Bible, New International Version © 2011, 2 Corinthians 6:18.
- See The Holy Bible, John 14:26. Also consider John 10:30; Matthew 10:20; and 1 John 5:20.
- The Holy Bible, Genesis 24:3.
- Ibid., Genesis 28:17.
- Ibid., Exodus 16:4.
- Ibid., Exodus 20:22.
- See, for example, The Holy Bible, 1 Kings 8:30, 8:32, 8:34; 2 Chronicles 6:21, 6:23, 6:25.
- The Holy Bible, Matthew 6:9, emphasis added.
- See The Holy Bible, Exodus 13:21–22.
- Ibid., Matthew 1:23.
- The Holy Bible, Matthew 1:20.
- See The Holy Bible, Matthew 4:3; Mark 1:1; John 5:25, 20:31; Romans 1:4; Galatians 2:20.
- Ibid., Mark 16:19; Luke 24:51; Acts 1:9, 7:55–56.
- The Holy Bible, Matthew 1:21. See also Galatians 1:4; 1 John 1:9; 2 Corinthians 5:21.
- See The Holy Bible, Mark 15:37–38; 1 Corinthians 15:1–3; 2 Corinthians 5:15.
- Ibid., Matthew 28, Mark 16, Luke 24, John 20–21.
- See The Holy Bible, John 14:2–3.
- The Holy Bible, Luke 24:51.
- Ibid., Hebrews 9:28.
- Ibid., 1 Thessalonians 4:16–17.
- Ibid., John 14:16, 26.
- See The Holy Bible, Acts 1–2.
- The Holy Bible, John 16:13.
- Ibid., Isaiah 11:2.
- Ibid., John 14:17.
- Ibid., 2 Corinthians 5:15.
- Ibid., Deuteronomy 4:39.
- Photo Credit: Alexey Kuzma / Stocksy.com.
Wonder is a universal feeling. The next step is seeking truth.Wonder is the beginning of wisdom.Socrates
“You’re being unreasonable!” he cried. She recoiled, hurt by his accusation. That little phrase can be quite a cutting insult in today’s world.
In our world, reason is held in very high esteem; everything is subjected to the rule of reason. To earn the label of “truth,” things must pass scientific and mathematical tests of logic, consistency, and intellectual rigor. While emotion and intuition are not bad in themselves, they must not be allowed to interfere with our assessment of whether something is pragmatic, sustainable, and capable of bringing the greatest good to the greatest number.
This rational, utilitarian approach to things has spurred on great progress in medicine, transportation, communication, and technology. On the whole, that has been a good thing, but such advances have tended to suppress our spiritual needs for fellowship, intimacy, beauty, and purpose. Our physical needs and desires have been met—we have no lack of creature comforts—but what about those deeper questions that elude reason and cannot be expressed in terms of scientific statements and propositions?
The Mind and the Heart
While our mind asks whether God exists and whether our soul is immortal, our heart wonders and yearns and aches for a kind of meaning that can’t be seen or heard or touched. No matter how much our lives are improved by scientific progress, we cannot evade or erase that nagging sense that neither we nor our world is as it should be.
We ask with our mind, “Which religion is true?” or “What must I do to be saved?” but we wonder with our heart whether we have any value and whether God, even if he existed, would care about us. The cry of the heart is a cry for love and acceptance; it desires not philosophical answers but real—even divine—presence.
The mind wants to be taught; the heart wants to be embraced. The mind longs to know; the heart longs to be known. The mind demands a system; the heart yearns to return home.
Glimpses of that true home break through to us like sunbeams on a cloudy day. Even when we are not actively seeking such glimpses, they come to us unbidden. A melody from a song, the patterned wings of a butterfly, mist wrapped around a mountain top, the smile of a young child, a gymnast soaring through the air for her dismount, a flickering image from an old black-and-white film: each and all speak of a world where beauty is richer, more real, more lasting.
We feel that we have come from that world of beauty, and that, though we have been separated from it somehow, we still belong there. The French Revolution, Soviet Russia, Fascist Germany, Maoist China, Communist Cambodia: all tried to crush religion out of man and replace it with a secular utopia. They not only failed, they carried out horrible atrocities that killed the souls of their people.
Western democratic attempts at “utopia lite” have been less brutal, but they have left most westerners hungry for something more. For once our physical needs have been met, then we remember that there is another dimension to us that cannot be fed by food or possessions or entertainment. In a world of plenty, we remain dry and unfulfilled.
Whatever our minds may say, our hearts tell us that this world is not enough—that we were made for something that transcends time and space. That is why we turn to fantasy and magic and mysticism. We long for a voice from beyond nature to speak words of meaning and love. We crave a world that shimmers with glory, radiance, and holiness. We yearn, in short, for God to come to us and to be with us.
And yet, we are so made that mere fantasy is not enough. It must have its roots in history, in real life, if it is to transform us and give us hope. We want a story, but it must finally be a true story, a myth that becomes fact and renews the world.
- Photo Credit: ISebyl / Shutterstock.com.