How do I Know that God Exists?
There are so many religions in the world. They can't all be right! Are we to just follow the one our parents followed? Should we try to blend them all? - perhaps find little bits of truth in each one? How do I know that there's a god out there at all? He hasn't come down has he? Can't I live a good life without believing in god?
People in Ireland are questioning like never before. That in itself is a good thing. It would be a bit silly if everyone was locked into what their parents believed or what people around them believe. Christianity would never have been established for a start - "No thank you St Patrick! - We are all pagans here!"
Although it is good to question, it is also good to be open to reasonable answers. In many important matters, the evidence isn't as 'cast iron' as we'd like it to be but we still accept it. The people on the Titanic might have wondered how safe these little lifeboats were, but the boat they were on wasn't all that safe either! Whatever view you have about anything is always subject to some objection by someone. Ultimately, if there is a God, he is the one who decides what kind of evidence to offer. We might want to argue that there isn't enough - just like you can argue in court that the speed limit signs were not clear enough but if there is a God, then he's the one doing the judging!
Before looking at specific arguments for believing in God, let's look at some of the problems of doubting or sitting on the fence. A philosopher called Descartes is famous for doubting everything that he could doubt. Doubting isn't all that difficult. For example, all your information about the world comes through your five senses, interpreted by the brain. You could wonder if your brain is telling you the whole truth. Every night you are deceived by your dreams. People sometimes hallucinate. Do you have a truer view of the world than an ant? Could a hypothetical alien with five entirely different senses have a truer view of reality than you?
Descartes ended up being convinced only of his own existence with the famous words "I think, therefore I am". Whatever about the existence of a world outside his mind, he knew that he himself existed because he had thoughts. He built up his philosophical framework from there. Funnily enough, other philosophers found flaws in his logic. So perhaps poor Descartes shouldn't have been so confident of his own existence!
You Must Decide
There are many opinions in the world on almost any subject. As humans, we are always having to weigh things up and make choices. We make choices about careers, who we should marry, where we should live and countless smaller decisions that can turn out to have a significant impact on our lives. I'm sure you can think of examples in your own life. Even if you could choose to drift through life and make no decisions at all, that in itself would be a decision.
If we neglect to consider the deeper things of life, we will be consumed by things that might not matter very much in the long run. Or maybe we just absorb whatever the prevailing philosophy of the moment is. We sometimes laugh at the Ireland of the past. How gullible we all were! But are we any less gullible today? Are we really thinking for ourselves? Or are we still looking around to see what everyone else believes and following sheepishly?
Jesus said "Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it." (Matthew 7:13,14)
There are Many Atheisms!
Some argue that since there are many religions and since any or all of them could be wrong, the safest bet is not to believe in any of them. This reminds me of a classmate who couldn't remember which subject he had one day so decided not to bring any books to school in case he brought the wrong one! For many, atheism is seen as the safest bet - a sort of 'default setting' for humans - the view you hold if you can't make up your mind. But even then, you still have to have some beliefs and these could also be wrong. As a human, you have some view of reality. Why do I exist? How do I know what is true and false? Is there any purpose to life? Are there such things as good and evil, right and wrong? Even if you are atheist, you have a wide variety of different views to choose from on these important matters. I remember getting a book on philosophy when I was 17. Each chapter presented a different view of reality - all of them vastly different and even contradictory. Some said that we have no firm evidence that there is any reality outside our own minds. On a recent TV show on artificial intelligence, the presenter speculated that future generations may be able to create whole worlds of computer-generated people who think they are real and that such worlds could be set in the past. He then went on to wonder if we ourselves could be computer generated. How would we know if we weren't? Have you seen the Matrix?
On the other hand, some say that the external world of atoms and energy is all there is. There is no such thing as the mind. We are just biological machines. There is no essential difference between humans and robots. If I scratch my head, it's not because my mind told my brain to send a signal to my hand. My brain was going to do it anyway. No decision at all was made - I only think I made a decision. This doesn't just go for scratching my head. Absolutely everything I ever do is automatic. Everything is governed by the laws of physics. I was predetermined to do it in the same way that the earth is predetermined to go around the sun or a robot is programmed to lift a weight. We could go even further and say that there is no 'me'. The universe is just matter and energy. I am just another cloud of atoms just like everything else. Where does the "me" fit in? Serious scientist and philosophers argue these points!
This was illustrated in a recent BBC Radio 4 Analysis discussion. You can look up the whole discussion, called "A Human Politics", on the BBC Radio 4 Web site. What interested me was that British politician, Roy Hattersly, seemed to look to the human mind for answers and Dr Susan Blackmore, a psychologist, later in the discussion, pretty much said that there is nothing in there.
ROY HATTERSLY I don’t believe there’s anything outside the human mind, which can guide us, which can advise us on how we should conduct ourselves. I have enough faith in human nature to believe that given the right environment, the right chance, it will be humanity that makes the improvements I want to see in society.
..... LATER in the discusssion .....................
BLACKMORE: Free will is a really interesting and powerful delusion. Basically the world is a closed system, things happen because of things that have happened before, and the brain is an amazingly complex machine obeying physical principles and so on. There’s no room for free will.
MALIK: What about the notion of a conscious self?
BLACKMORE: I think that’s another delusion as well. That’s a very tricky one because it’s such a powerful feeling that I am not equivalent to my body, I am not equivalent to the things that go on in here. I am somehow the owner of this body. I’m sitting in my brain looking out through my eyes. That’s how it feels and that’s how we talk. But, again, if we look at what a brain is actually like – if you open up a brain you see millions and millions of interconnected neurons with billions of connections. There’s no place for a self to be in there....
I'm not trying to confuse you. The point is, whatever you believe, there will be some intelligent person willing and able to find flaws in it. You could give up in despair and say why bother even trying. 'Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die'. Believe what you like! The 'truth' is impossible or meaningless anyway. The problem with that is that there is something deep within humans that makes us believe that there is more to it than that. Is life just one long cruel joke or is there something more? Because you and I, in my opinion at least, do have a mind, we are the most amazing things in the universe. You can behave like a cow or a sheep and sit around just thinking of your next meal or you can ASK QUESTIONS.
If you are nothing more than a biological machine or an arrangement of atoms, then life has no meaning. The things that are most important to us, such as love, a sense of right and wrong and a sense of purpose are all just little evolutionary mechanisms with no overall plan or purpose. Chance and purpose are mutually exclusive. You are no more significant than a frog, a rock or a piece of space dust. If the world explodes than all that happens is the atoms get recycled into something else. It's ironic that Adam was reminded that he is dust after the first sin (Gen 3:19). When we turn from God, all our significance disappears. Someone once said that if God is dead, man is dead as well.
Of course, there doesn't seem to be much sense in inventing a false god just to make life seem meaningful. But the need for purpose and meaning should motivate us to search for the true God. We don't have much to lose. People might laugh and say that your search is hopeless. But to me, that is like someone on the Titanic laughing at the people venturing out in their little boats in an effort to get to a safe place. Someone might say it's all been tried before by better people than you - but have you yourself done it? Should you put your blind faith in priests, scientists, philosophers, those who know better? It's your life. It's your eternal destiny at stake. Whatever resources you have why not use them to get off the fence and make up your mind about the claims of Christianity.
How an Atheist Copes
I'm not suggesting that every atheist sees himself as simply a biological machine. Somehow or other, in their everyday lives, they end up believing and acting as if they are capable of making decisions, that a sense of good and evil are not just evolution's way of helping us to survive and that there is such a thing as meaning, purpose, a sense of significance, love and so on. I don't imagine that most atheists view their wives and children as biological machines, programmed to show affection. But there seems to me to be no solid basis for their outlook. If there is no God, if we just came about by accident, then all we believe about the things that are most important to us, is a fiction, implanted in us by some evolutionary mechanism - a sort of cruel joke played by nothing or no-one. It might suit humanity to pretend that we are important or not to think about life too deeply. But surely if there is even the remotest possibility that life has a REAL purpose (as opposed to an invented purpose), then we should investigate further.
The Fool Says in his Heart 'There is no God'.
Atheism isn't new. The Old Testament says "The fool says in his heart there is no god." (Psalm 53:1) We are not talking about people of low intellect here. We are talking about those who should know better convincing themselves that they are free of God and the constraints that believing in him brings. More sophisticated forms of atheism and agnosticism have been put forward in recent centuries. People wondered how long God would exist. 'God is Dead' became the catch phrase. Yet people still believe in God. And not just the 'ignorant' masses. A huge number of people on every continent, many with the highest educational qualifications believe in him. In fact, it's a bit of a novelty to bump into someone who claims to be a theoretical atheist or an agnostic. There are a few well-known ones who are rolled onto TV debates but it almost seems a bit like a minority religion. I haven't done a survey of world leaders but my guess would be that there would be very few atheists among them - probably less than there would have been 50 years ago.
It's true that many people put God out of the picture and are a bit vague about what they believe. But when pressed, most do believe in him in some shape or form. In the last century, both the Nazis and the communists despised God-centred religion and sought to replace it with a different kind of religion that put man on the throne. But belief in God keeps coming to the surface again and again. Therefore, rather than seeing atheism as the human's default position as we explore all the options, it makes more sense to me to see belief in God as the default position. We then decide what religion or brand of atheism we might want to trust in. Or alternatively, we get so caught up with the worries and pleasures of the world that nothing ever gets decided at all. To quote Pink Floyd:
"Every year is getting shorter
Never seem to find the time
Plans that either come to nought
Or half a page of scribbled lines"
And it isn't only this present life that we should be concerned about. Just as humans know that there is a God, they know deep down that our own existence doesn't end down here. There is more. And what we decide here has eternal consequences.
Can we prove beyond all doubt that God exists? Well, if we are looking for absolute, mathematical proof, that could never be questioned by anyone, then the answer is no. The world isn't like that. Much of what we know about anything is a mixture of gut feeling or instinct, reason, evidence and exercising reasonable faith. But the Bible does assume that you have more than enough to go on. If that is not enough, then you can argue with God on judgement day that the evidence he provided wasn't powerful enough - Or better still, pray to him now that he would help you to accept the evidence that is there. It will be a bit late on judgement day.
What About Agnosticism?
Some choose to be agnostic instead of atheistic. Atheism is too cold and final. How can you know for sure that there is no God? Maybe there is a God and a meaning but we don't or can't know, so we sit on the fence. But how do you know that you can't know? If God is there, surely he is capable of revealing himself to you. He obviously doesn't wave down from the sky and tell us he's here. But many believe that he reveals himself just the same. Your time on earth is limited. Doing nothing or believing nothing isn't necessarily the best option.
Jesus said "He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters." (Matthew 12:30)
"This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil." (John 3:19)
Five Strands of Evidence
Many big thick books have been written on the existence of God - for and against. These are just brief arguments to think about - my sixpence ha'pennys worth! - By the way - Scaling the Secular City by Dr J.P Moreland is a good book on this area.
1. Our Appetite for God
If you read the Bible, you will find that it doesn't argue for God's existence. It assumes that we already know that he is there but we are hiding away from him - putting him out of our minds. It's a bit like a child hearing his mother calling him in from play at the end of the day. He knows that she is calling but he would prefer not to hear.
Humans appear to have a belief in God wired into them. Just as a newborn child craves milk, we appear to have an appetite for God. Again, the Bible teaches that because of sin, we suppress and misdirect this in all sorts of ways but it seems to be there in humanity. The apostle knew this when he spoke about the gentiles in Romans 1.
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities--his eternal power and divine nature--have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. (Roman 1: 18ff)
There are all sorts of 'conspiracy theories' that attempt to explain this human instinct - it's an idealized version of your father or something instilled by culture to control the working classes etc. But why fight it? If you have a gut feeling that he is there, investigate further - don't try to explain it away. If you are nothing more than something pointless that popped into existence through evolution then you will pop back out of existence whatever your beliefs or disbeliefs. None of it matters anyway. But even if there is a small possibility that there is more to you than that, you should investigate further.
2. The Existence of the World
If you are looking for evidence, this is one huge piece of evidence. Again, people have sought to explain it away. The most current idea is that there was a big bang billions of years ago that brought it into existence. Humans are part of the debris of stars that subsequently exploded. Some atheistic scientists claims that there is no need for belief in God since we now know how the world was created. Some blindly accept the word of scientists the way they blindly accepted the word of priests in the past. But you only have to read a few books or watch a few TV shows to see that the scientists themselves are a bit muddled about this. Because people in the past were a bit too quick to invoke God every time they couldn't explain something, scientists are now very reluctant to allow God to make an appearance anywhere - even when it's perfectly reasonable to do so.
But people rightly ask what caused the big bang. As humans, we know that things have causes. Science itself teaches us that. It is also reasonable to assume that somewhere back along the line, there is a beginning - a first uncaused cause. To me it is more reasonable to believe that something caused the world to come into existence than to say that it just popped into existence from nothing. Moreover, if something caused the world to come into existence, what was the trigger? Does a match light itself? Was there some eternal thing out there that just happened to explode and create time and space? In our world, personal beings take initiative. The moon and stars are very interesting but they don't do anything much apart from follow predetermined paths. Humans have always deduced (correctly in my view) that whatever caused the world could well be personal in nature. It isn't human but it's a bit like a human.
Why should that surprise us? If someone found an alien who was twenty times as intelligent as us, would you say that this is theoretically impossible? If someone said that in a billion years, humans could be capable of creating a universe, would you say that this is theoretically impossible? Why are so many people happy to accept the possibility of intelligent beings within the universe but reject the notion of an intelligent being outside the universe?
Why shouldn't the world have been created by a personal being? We are not talking about Santa Clause or a man in the sky. We are talking about a being infinitely more intelligent than us. You might choose to explain the existence of the universe differently but the idea of a personal being acting to create it is at least reasonable.
3. Design in the World
If nothing other than gas or rocks existed, we would still have to explain the origin of the universe. However, it's a lot more impressive than this. Many scientists - even atheists have accepted that it seems to have been programmed to develop in a certain way - almost as if someone drew up a set of intricate plans. Increasingly, scientists are accepting that the odds of a big bang giving rise to the universe we know are very small indeed.
If your neighbour won the lotto draw, you might be surprised but someone has to win. Suppose she won again the next week? Well, it would be odd but maybe it can happen. But let's suppose she won again for the next ten weeks. Even though it is still theoretically possible that it's pure chance, I would imagine that people would want to seek another explanation. In most, if not all, areas of science, the more we are discovering, the less likely it seems that it's all a matter of chance. This is particularly true of biology but even the existence of stars and planets is considered extremely unlikely to have happened by chance. If there had been a big bang, the chances of it producing anything but gas are absolutely tiny.
If you've ever heard an atheist evolutionist commenting on this history of life on earth, you'll notice that the mechanism of evolution is almost personalised and deified. People talk about the genius of Mother Nature. They are almost giving glory to God despite themselves. But if everything can be explained by chance and time, then why should anyone think that anything in the world is impressive? But we are impressed and the more we learn about the universe, the more impressed we are. We see the universe as the work of an artist. We appreciate it's beauty. Is this appreciation the result of a genetic mutation that gives us a reproductive advantage or is it the result of us being made in God's image?
"I was merely thinking God's thoughts after him. Since we astronomers are priests of the highest God in regard to the book of nature, it befits us to be thoughtful, not of the glory of our minds, but rather, above all else, of the glory of God" Johann Kepler - a father of astronomy
In December 2004, Dr Anthony Flew, a famous scientist and a lifelong militant atheist concluded that there must be a God after all. He has not got as far as accepting the God of Christianity but he did say that "a super-intelligence is the only good explanation for the origin of life and the complexity of nature".
4. Mind and Morality
Recent research on robots and artificial intelligence has brought the issue of consciousness to the fore. We can make robots but how could we make a conscious robot? How could we produce a mind? Is this made of atoms? Does it follow the same laws that everything else in the universe follows? Is a human just a group of atoms arranged in a certain way? If my child is killed in an accident, do I say that he/she was nothing more than atoms and take comfort in the notion that the atoms will be recycled into something else? Would I be happy with a robotic replacement? Some kind of a simulated person? Such talk is depressing and distasteful. But if we put God out of the picture, then we are insignificant - nothing more than machines and why should we not be replaced by other machines or even rocks - or nothing at all.
The existence of our minds and our sense of morality seems to suggest that we are something more and there is more to life. The human mind is by far the most amazing thing in the universe. It seems to be fundamentally different to everything else. It brings with it a whole world that is much more than atoms and physical laws. Could it really have been produced by blind chance? Mightn't it suggest that a great mind lies behind all the other minds?
In the autumn of 2004 hundreds of school children were murdered by terrorists in Beslan, Russia. Back in the 1996, Thomas Hamilton murdered a group of children in a school in Dunblane, Scotland before turning the gun on himself. I'm not arguing here that you need religion to stop such evil from happening. In fact, it's often a distorted take on religion that drives people to do such wicked things. The crucifixion of Jesus demonstrates this. But let's think for a moment about the nature of morality. The world generally agrees that such killings are extremely evil. But what is evil if there is no God? If we are all just accidents of evolution, how can we say that anything is absolutely right or absolutely wrong? What kind of atoms or energy is morality made of? Is it just found in the human mind? Is it just an evolutionary mechanism to help humans survive? (you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours) What about the law of the jungle or the survival of the fittest? Who is to say what is right and what is wrong or how I should live my life?
How can you tell a mass murderer like Hitler or Stalin that he is evil if evil is just a recent human invention, designed to make life better for us (or some of us). What if someone wants to change the ground rules? What if someone has a different view of right and wrong? What if Thomas Hamilton decides that life is not worth living for him or for the children and feels he is justified in taking revenge on the world? The Nazis and the communists thought that they were working for the good of humanity. Is morality just a matter of opinion? Do we decide right and wrong by a show of hands? Or is there an absolutely right and an absolutely wrong and if so, where do these come from? Are they wired into us somehow? Did God put them there or are they some by-product of evolution? Do we have a right to break or change the wiring?
5. Jesus Christ
Some are happy to accept God of philosophy - some kind of force or even some kind of personal higher being but find it hard to accept that he could be interested in us. But why bother to create a universe if you were not interested in it? And why bother to create humans, with a desire to communicate with their Creator, if you didn't want to communicate with them?
If you were able to create a robot with a real personality, wouldn't you be interested in talking to it? If you have a new baby, don't you like it when it smiles and learns to talk to you? Or would you prefer to wait until it is an adult and you can have a decent conversation with it?
Does interest in human contact diminish with intelligence? We have a stereotypical image of a brilliant person as some sort of a clumsy geek with no interest in humans. There is a name for a person with no feelings - a psychopath!
Greatness isn't just about knowledge, wisdom and power. It's also about 'human' qualities such as love.
"Who puts the rainbow in the sky, Who lights the stars at night, Who dreamed someone so divine, Someone like you and made them mine .." Declan O' Rourke (Galileo) "
If God is great, then we should expect him to be a loving being. The heart of the gospel message is John 3:16
"For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. "
Sometimes people say that they would believe if God would come down and prove that he is there. Well, Christians believe that he has. He became a man and walked this earth. He also did many amazing miracles. These miracles were not done to prove that there is a God. The Bible assumes that we have adequate evidence already. Jesus came to show us in greater depth what God is like, and to rescue us (this is dealt with in other sections of this Web site). He proved that he was the Son of God by many miracles. Jesus told his disciples that he would die and rise again in three days. Over the centuries many people have given prophecies. Many of these are dubious. If I give a prophecy that a plane will crash next June, then if it does, we can put it down as a good guess. But if I say that I'll die and rise again and have breakfast with you, it's a lot more impressive to say the least.
Did his disciples lie when they said that they had breakfast with the risen Christ? Why would they lie - most of them died for their beliefs. A person might die for what he mistakingly thinks to be true but who would die for what he knows to be a lie? Were they deceived? If it was just one man having a vision, then this is possible, but how could so many be deceived. They sat and had breakfast with him. Many other miracles were done in the public arena among people who were often sceptical and sometimes ardently opposed.
You might say that you don't believe in miracles. At the same time people say they'll only believe if God does a miracle - what's the point in God doing miracles if you refuse to believe in them when he does! You might prefer him to come down and do a personal miracle. Even if he did that, you could find some way to explain it away. You might wonder if it was a hallucination or perhaps think that aliens are playing tricks on you!
When told about the resurrection, 'doubting' Thomas said "Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it." (John 20:25)
Jesus later appeared to Thomas and said "Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe." Thomas said to him, "My Lord and my God!" Then Jesus told him, "Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed."
Does this mean that people should believe everything that people tell them? No! But Thomas's problem was that he already knew the character of the disciples. He had no reason to doubt their word. He also knew the sort of things that Jesus was capable of doing. He wasn't asked to believe apart from evidence. He already had evidence. He wanted more when he didn't really need more. The resurrection should not have been a surprise to the disciples.
Even as a believer, I would appreciate it if I could see a few miracles to prop up my faith. But there is already enough evidence to convince me to make a decision. I could fold my arms and say No - I'll only believe if you give me more. But how would I feel on judgement day when millions of people from all backgrounds flocked into heaven. Clearly they would have had enough evidence to believe. Then God would judge my motives. Was it really a matter of a lack of evidence or was it simply more convenient for me not to believe?