by Bob Rigsby
To many modern minds the idea of the reality of God is thought to be an ancient relic; sustained by wishful, fearful believers. These minds hold that the notion of God is unnecessary and that true liberation is realized when one faces the stark reality of cosmic loneliness in the vast and hostile universe.
For the sake of this discussion, we will fast-forward past the well articulated apologetics of many thinkers and assume that there is indeed a God. More precisely, this God is the God pictured by the Christian world-view as set forth in the Bible. This God has the metaphysical qualities of being all powerful, all knowing, and is everywhere present. More importantly, this non-material being is personal and loving – that is, God can be known in a personal way and everything God does is done with our best interest in mind.
Given that the modern minded materialist (one who holds that the observable physical world is all there is) denies the existence of a metaphysical reality, God’s problem emerges. How can God reveal Himself to this modern mind?
Valid protest from believers may assert that this is rather man’s problem – not Gods – since it was man who defined things so as to exclude the possibility of God. That God has shouldered this responsibility however is part of the Christian message about God. Motivated by His infinite love, it is simply an extension of His character that He will reach out and seek relationship with His creation – man. So, the problem for God is worth consideration.
Restated, if modern materialist minds hold that only the material exists, how can they possibly expect to recognize the reality of the non-material, eternal God? For they have already predefined His nonexistence. In this system, science is held to be supreme. This leads to an odd sort of circular thinking: science deals with the observable (to the five senses), measurable world; since science (which by definition is silent on this) says nothing about a metaphysical reality, that reality cannot be. So before the metaphysical reality even has a chance to raise its hand in protest, its reply is disallowed – having been already held to be irrelevant.
This mindset produces some interesting interactions. When the celebrated atheist Bertrand Russell was asked what he would say to God if God were to ask him why he didn’t believe he is said to have replied “not enough evidence.” But, as one who holds that science is supreme, and defining evidence as “scientific” evidence, he has rigged the ballot box and ensured that his question is unanswerable. It is as though he has asked God to define a square circle.
Or, consider Carl Sagan’s mocking conjecture that perhaps if there were a huge red cross in the sky each night it would be easier to believe: he would have his evidence. But would he? Suppose he DID see such a thing – what would he do? As a good scientist, he would be compelled to study it. Using all available technology to analyze it, he would measure it and subject it to all known theories. If, perhaps, he could with reasonable certainty prove that it was merely a “natural” phenomenon, it would of course cease to be evidence of God for him. Suppose however that after all his testing he had no explanation for this celestial red cross. Would he then fall on his knees in reverence of a supreme God?
Unlikely. Rather, because his world-view has already disallowed God as an explanation, he would consign it to the realm of “questions science has not answered yet – but certainly will in the future as technology increases and knowledge grows.” In this realm live such questions as, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” or “Where did the ‘stuff’ of the universe come from?” (Some find it ironic that scientists are allowed to have such “we’ll have to wait and see” questions, while Christians are ridiculed when they can’t explain the “mechanism” of God creating by simply speaking. The fields of evolutionary biology are crammed with such “wait-and-see” disclaimers.)
Many scenarios such as these can be imagined. A skeptic might say, for example, that he might believe if he could sit down and meet Jesus: talk with Him, walk with Him, listen to Him, and watch Him. The Bible record describes this very situation with sad, but illuminating clarity. (Matt 16:4, Mark 6:4-6) Most in His day did in fact reject the eyewitness evidence to which they were direct observers. Was this because the evidence was too weak? or because for other reasons they had already presupposed such a being could not exist? Even after witnessing miracles, these minds asked for a sign; demonstrating their predetermined position that no amount of evidence would suffice. (John 6:30, Matt 12:22-45)
One such skeptic was different; Thomas the so-called doubter. (John 20: 24-29) His skepticism had a critical difference however: it possessed the conceptual possibility that the claim made could be true. Rightly perhaps, he questioned the testimony of his flawed friends who had demonstrated their rashness, unreliability, and impulsiveness in the past. Wanting more than their words, he wanted to see firsthand that to which they themselves had actual access. He seriously entertained the potential that these previously fickle men might be right. The fact that he wanted the very best evidence which was actually available is a strong indication that his need for this evidence was a reasonable demand. That it was a reasonable thing is indicated in the response of Christ: He gave Thomas exactly what he had asked for. In dropping down to the ground in conviction and worship of this newly revealed God, Thomas proved that his demand for evidence was not of the inherently impossible sort which the modern skeptic relishes.
Far from being an endorsement of gullibility, the subsequent blessing extended by Christ to those who “believe without seeing” is a recognition that future minds will not have the physical evidence that Thomas so appropriately asked for. (Since it was available to him….) Yet those minds must entertain the conceptual possibility of the embodiment of supreme love; Christ Himself. The one who does this is blessed by Christ as he searches for meaning and truth in his life. (v.29) The ability to “see” and respond in one’s mind to the theoretical possibility, necessarily precedes the actual, visible demonstrations of belief.
That the flower of observable content begins as a seed of imagined plausibility – a conceptual possibility – is a truth affirmed by the Bible. How one responds to an idea – even in his imagination, before it becomes a visible reality – is intimately linked to the physical, observable reality of acting on the idea. “As a man thinks in his heart, so is he” is one way the Bible says this. (Prov. 23:7) Or, consider the tenth commandment. (Ex 20:17) It holds that the “mental act” of coveting, essentially an “event” – a conceptual possibility – which occurs in a mind’s imagination, is in fact inseparable from an act that such a thought might motivate.
Christ also confirms this truth with His claim that when one lusts in his heart – which is seemingly “only” a private assent to a conceptual possibility – in effect he is guilty of committing the actual act. (Mt 5:28) Even the reality of sin existed first as a conceptual possibility – in the heart of Lucifer – before maturing into open rebellion. (Is 14:13,14; Ez 28:14,15)
To the Christian, the problem that God cannot be considered a valid option by the skeptic is a false dilemma; for all are held to have reasonable access to the available evidence. This is affirmed by the Bible, which asserts that ALL have been afforded an opportunity to know God and if they do reject Him they are without excuse. (Rom. 1:18 – 2:1)
The conceptual possibility that ultimate truth and love really do exist is, for the Christian, embodied in the person of Christ; making sense of John’s insightful gospel description: “In the beginning was the Word…. and the Word became flesh…” John 1:1,14) A conceptual possibility realized.
What are these conceptual possibilities, or “plausibility structures,” that compel one to legitimately consider the metaphysical realities such as a loving God? Of necessity, these things must be outside the realm of science, yet common to the experience of the modern mind and therefore allowable as a conceptual possibility.
Briefly, there are numerous ideas, none of which science is able to comment on, all of which have at least some level of familiarity and meaning to every mind. Ideas embodied by words such as love, beauty, integrity, loyalty, honesty, pleasure, suffering, courage, justice, mercy, redemption, and so on, all resonate in some way with human minds as representing something that is valid and meaningful and real. They really exist only as concepts, yet they all have their recognizable demonstration in reality which all experience. That science is not equipped to define or explain these values is obvious. Yet one may rightly demand from science the qualities of – for example – integrity and honesty. When a skeptic smuggles such values into his thinking, one may fairly ask why he does so.
The reality of objective values in ethics and morality prods the search for a source of this objectivity. Even the very idea of meaning in one’s life hints strongly of something outside one’s self which gives it that meaning. These concepts (there are of course many more….) – these “signals of transcendence” or “whispers of eternity” – can serve as on ramps to the highway of truth and meaning. A highway made real by, and leading to, the eternal God.
Some have wondered, given the subtle nature of this evidence, why God doesn’t make His existence more “obvious” such as the obviousness of our own existence? Put differently, why doesn’t God compel belief?
Perhaps the answer is best approached by asking another question. What does God really want from us? (Micah 6:8; Hosea 6:6; Jer 31:33) Portrayed in the Bible is a God who wants only our love and worship. Worship being, in essence, a perpetual, ongoing celebration of His worthiness; humbly living in the complete awareness of the reality of His love, creatorship, and holiness, enjoying relationship with God forever. Essential however, is that this love and worship be freely given. It cannot, by it’s very nature, be coerced or compelled. If forced, it fosters resentment, then open rebellion. If present without the possibility of rejection, it is merely the “love” of a robot – not love at all.
The existence of freedom of choice can be seen as a signal of transcendence and poses a great problem for the materialist (a point well defended on this web site). Briefly, if materialism is true, there should be no such thing as freedom of choice. Everything that we observe would be simply the result of predetermined interactions between molecules which obey set laws. This would mean that any appearance of choice is an illusion. Most find this notion difficult to sustain but the thorough, consistent, materialist concedes that this is exactly what his materialism demands.
Emphasizing the reality of freedom of choice is the demonstrable existence of mutually exclusive, logically opposite options for behavior: good and evil. A powerful “signal of transcendence,” the experiential reality of good and evil confirms that freedom of choice is not an illusion. While many see the existence of evil as a difficult problem for the Christian, it is a doubly difficult problem for the materialist. After he has recognized the existence of evil – which presupposes a referent by which to define it – the materialist must explain that this option of evil is not a legitimate choice. A consistent materialist holds that both choice and evil are merely illusions; a position most minds intuitively reject because of the devastating and unlivable implications.
The real existence of freedom of choice is assumed by the Bible which asserts that minds can and do reject God. With the rebellion in heaven, Lucifer and his angels rejected God though they had lived in His presence. (Rev 12:7-9, 2 Pet 2:4, Jude 6) There will be those in the last days who reject God also – even as they accept not only His existence but also His sovereignty. (Rev. 6:15,16)
That there are minds which reject God, even with the obvious evidence of His reality, surely is a tragic mystery – as tragic and mysterious as sin itself. The illogical choice to separate oneself from God exposes the utter irrationality of sin since making this choice – given God’s respect for our freedom to choose – results in ones own self destruction. Further, accepting this reality of God’s respect for our freedom to choose for ourselves, necessitates the position of the annihilationist (the position that the “soul” is destroyed and ceases to exist at death. This is well defended elsewhere on this website) since the threat of eternal torment for not responding favorably to God’s calling can rightly be seen as inherently coercive.
The supreme question then emerges not as “does God exist?” but rather “what kind of character does this God have?” While seekers of truth may argue about this, the Christian claims that God is the embodiment of ultimate love and all that is good. But before one can respond to this God of biblical reality, he must first respond, in his mind, to the conceptual possibility that such a God really exists. When this mind finds what it had previously only longed for in its imagination, it will respond with rejoicing and celebration: the restless heart will have found its rest in God.
This brief essay, while only touching on important apologetic themes, only attempts to argue for the reasonableness of considering metaphysical themes as meaningful realities. When the possibilities of total goodness and love are considered, the discovery of God – the very embodiment of those values – can become a reality. Of course I concede that by the arguments contained in this essay the skeptic may rightly ask that the Christian consider the conceptual possibility that God does not exist. Having considered that possibility with the skeptic, I would gently challenge him with a question:
“How then will you live your life – and why?”
Clearly then, this discussion serves as an entry point to the greater themes it hints at.