Arguments for the Existence of God
In this essay, I will consider what the classical arguments for the existence of God prove, if anything at all, and discuss the relationship between religion and philosophy. I will then move on to discuss what pastoral relevance the arguments for the existence of God may have, and what our attitude should be to them. First, then, to the arguments themselves.
[The brief descriptions that follow in this section are a condensation of the arguments as presented by Peterson, Hasker, Reichenbach and Basinger, Reason & Religious Belief, pages 87ff.]
We must briefly consider the classical arguments for the existence of God, and they are summed up as follows:
Persons have the idea of God and, since this idea is in the mind and existence in reality is greater than existence in the mind, we can conceive in our mind of a greater being than a greatest being that exists in realty; but, since there can be no greater being than the greatest possible being, the greatest possible being therefore exists in reality.
Contingent beings exist in a universe that had a beginning which cannot be explained by an infinite series of causal conditions; there must therefore have been a first cause, which is the greatest possible being.
Contingent beings exist which have a cause or explanation outside themselves; what explains the existence of contingent beings is a non-contingent (necessary) being; therefore this necessary being must exist.
Seeing the intricate design and sophisticated operation of creation, we cannot help but conclude that creation had an intelligent Creator who fashioned it according to design and purpose.
There is an objective moral law outside of human opinion or thinking and we must decide whether to obey that moral law, which must have come from a moral God.
PHILOSOPHY VERSUS RELIGION?
In trying to answer the question of what these arguments prove or do not prove, we must now consider whether religion and philosophy are like oil and water and therefore do not mix; we must consider whether they are like paper and fire so that one is destroyed by the other; or whether they are like a right and left hand and can complement each other.
Religious belief is concerned with man’s attempt to make sense of reality and is judged by man to be true or false according as it does or does not make sense to man. Since man is not God, however, Pailin says that he “cannot escape this relativity of all his judgments.”
Furthermore, says Ferré, if philosophy “has always been engaged in factual knowing, symbolized by correspondence; in logical investigation, symbolized by consistency; in the evaluative and interpretative organizing of experience, symbolized by coherence” – has philosophy brought us proof of anything? Or has it merely provided some kind of income for those who write philosophy books?
While virtually no-one would deny the fact that a man named Jesus from Nazareth walked on earth around two thousand years ago, the life and death of that man has had incredible and unmistakable impact in the world. One has only to consider the way that time has been divided between BC and AD. Even if we no longer favour that division and prefer to use BCE and CE, they are still centred around the person of Jesus – whether we like it or not.
Yet, can the life and death of Jesus be said to be consistent and coherent with the rest of history? Why should the life and death of this one man stand out so much in history when Jesus seems in many ways to have been an intrusion into history rather than a coherent and consistent part of it?
Philosophy has sometimes been described as ‘faith seeking understanding’, but, if that is what it is, then philosophy springs from faith, it does not lead to it. “When faith is seeking understanding, the faith is already there, and philosophy comes on the scene too late to produce it” says Alston.
If religion is about revelation and philosophy is about the intellect, are the two mutually exclusive? Or is it possible that they can not only live together, but feed and encourage one another? Perhaps not for Ferré, who warned that “when intellectualism takes over, religion dies.” Yet it is the revelatory nature of religion that concerns MacQuarrie, who said, “If Christianity rests solely on an alleged once-for-all revelation, and has no support in reason and common experience, then it is doubtful whether it can survive or whether indeed it deserves to survive.”
But Christianity has survived, and so has philosophy. The general worldview seems to be that neither has really proved anything. So what can we be sure of? Can we be sure with Lewis that “evidence can never prove anything with absolute certainty, there is always the possibility of being mistaken about matters of fact; we must be content with probability, although in many matters this is of a very high order indeed and gives us all the certainty we need.”
“The general upshot of all this is that although philosophical reasoning has very important roles to play in the religious life, producing faith where it had been absent is not one of them.” Alston suggests that philosophy without faith is hollow, and that philosophy is at its best when it springs from faith.
We are told by Peterson, Hasker, Reichenbach and Basinger, that “most people are very far from being rational in the way in which they decide on important beliefs, especially religious beliefs.” But of course they are! Religious beliefs in themselves are intrinsically irrational, and they are largely valued by the believers as far more important than rationality. The reason for this should be obvious.
Rationality exists for this physical life only, but religion exists forever, and any rationalist should be a religious believer on this basis alone. But therein lies the greatest danger – the rationalist who believes religion because it is the rational thing to do has at best a wafer-thin and fragile foundation of faith which is not in the God of religion but in the belief of the existence of that God of religion. This rationalistic believer will find that the philosophy which quickly gave them this belief today, will just as quickly take it from them tomorrow. Had the arguments led them to proof for the existence of God, they would not be so easily swayed from believing what that proof has shown them.
Therefore, says Lewis, “If we begin with certain principles thought to apply to finite things, such as we find in the world, and then try to proceed by argument from this to the existence of infinite Reality, we are bound to fail.” Does that mean that philosophy has no value to those who believe in God? Do those who believe in God have to leave their reason and logic at the door on the way in to religion? No, not at all.
THE BURDEN OF PROOF
In philosophical terms, “any proof for an argument must be sound, known to be sound, and must extend our knowledge from a knowable premise that is independent of the conclusion.” But, to take the central point of that last statement, how do we know that any argument for the existence of God is sound? For, even to debate an argument requires common ground on which the argument can take place and allow the potential for knowledge to be extended. Where is the unshifting ground on which we may debate?
The reality is that argument always depends upon another person (or persons) accepting the ground on which the argument is based and therefore entering into the argument on an equal basis. Until this foundation is built, proof of any description is simply not possible. Proof is therefore person-relative, for we need to agree on terms of reference before we can discuss an issue. But then what value would a proof actually have even it were demonstrated to be true? Such a genuine proof might cause me to change my opinion, but my opinion would change just as easily at the next proof.
Pailin has said that “we may reasonably claim that we can provide significant verification for a religious belief if we can show that it is consistent with other fundamental convictions, is universally applicable, provides an appropriate understanding of reality, is superior to any other understanding of reality based on different ultimate convictions and does not lead to mutually contradictory consequences.” But how can arguments for the existence of God be persuasive to those who do not believe in God, and especially to those who do not want to believe in God?
Ferré has said that “God cannot be proved by experience and history anymore than he can be proved by mere reason, for the ultimate cannot be proved by the proximate.” Brown says that “The traditional rationalistic arguments for God will not hold water.” Therefore, the proof about the existence of God can only be a sound argument to those who already believe in a God of some sort; those who do not believe in God will not accept the argument for that god’s existence, even if there is ‘proof’. After all, how much more proof is required than the well-attested resurrection of Jesus from the dead?
Those who are deeply committed to belief in their God have made that commitment on the basis of experience or belief which is external to them – that is, something outside themselves that has deeply influenced them and caused them to believe deeply. Philosophy will not change these people, except possibly to cause them to doubt their faith.
Those people whose religious belief is something that they have arrived at themselves through a process of logical thought and argument or on the basis of someone else’s opinion have a very fragile foundation of faith, and philosophy can do real damage to that wafer-thin foundation of faith. The logic that apparently brought people to faith can take it from them just as easily.
The reality, then, is this: The only people who may be persuaded by classical ‘proofs’ of God’s existence are those whose existing belief in God is fragile and wafer-thin, and the only persuading that the arguments will effect is to weaken their faith, rather than strengthening it. Since the classical arguments for the proofs of God’s existence can therefore influence only a few people and then only in the negative, we must conclude that the arguments prove nothing. Nothing of any lasting value, nothing on which solid foundations may be built.
But one also has to ask if these arguments were ever meant to prove the existence of God, or were they meant to arouse our curiosity and seek after a meaning for life – faith seeking understanding. Perhaps the arguments cannot actually prove anything, but does this mean that philosophy has no meaningful contribution to make to the lives of those who believe in God? No, not at all.
DEATH CAN BE FATAL
Lloyd-Jones lamented: “I look back and I think of the hours I have wasted in mere talk and argumentation. And it was all with one end only, simply to gain my point and to show how clever I was.” If this is all that philosophy means to us, then it will be of no value to us at all. As much as I recognise like Tozer that “studying the philosophers may clarify my thinking and broaden my outlook, but it is not necessary to my salvation”, I want nevertheless to suggest that philosophy does have some value for those engaged in pastoral ministry, but it is how it is used that is the key.
“An interest in theology which is not based on life is dangerous” said Lloyd-Jones, but just as dangerous is an interest in philosophy which is not based on life. But philosophy was never meant to be divorced from life, and it was never meant to replace faith, either.
“What if the condition of one’s heart is more important for understanding the Bible than the abilities of one’s mind?” This question by Jack Deere is relevant, because the person of faith has a true foundation on which to ask the deepest questions of philosophy. Those people who wrote the Psalms asked these kind of questions again and again, as did many others. These people addressed many real life issues such as suffering and death.
Those who are near to death will very often question the existence of God. That applies to the religious and non-religious alike. Here, then, is possibly some value of the arguments for the existence of God – they may possibly be used to strengthen the faith of those who are doubting and struggling at the end of life, but can they can help to bring to faith those who have no faith?
Does this mean that the classical arguments for the existence of God can, after all, bring unbelievers to faith? No, but it does mean that people involved in pastoral ministry can approach the dying person’s philosophical questions with knowledge and faith, and in this way treat people and their struggles with integrity.
This is also true where family members are trying to cope with the loss of their loved one, and especially where children have died. Philosophical questions about the existence of God and what kind of God he is are often to be found on the lips of the recently bereaved. If these people have faith, they are in a moment of great loss, and their faith foundations are shaking. Those in pastoral ministry who are involved with such people cannot afford to ignore their philosophical questions, and knowledge is needed if those who minister are to do more than simply give cheap answers.
But the philosophical questions of the dying and bereaved are not limited to the mouths of those who have faith. The most ardent of atheists will often ask deeply philosophical questions about the existence of God when they are personally near to death or suffering the loss of a loved one.
Philosophical engagement at a knowledgeable level in itself may not win that person to faith, but taking their questions seriously and engaging them intelligently will deepen their trust of you – and that may lead them to faith. To brush aside with disrespect and ignorance the deeply philosophical questions of the suffering is a certain way to alienate those very people who most need the closeness of love. Death can be fatal, but resurrection wins in the end. Which resurrection does pastoral ministry want people to expect?
THE INTELLIGENCE OF THE INTELLIGENT
As those involved in pastoral ministry, what kind of response will we give to those who have very keen and intelligent minds and ask difficult philosophical questions about the existence of God? Are we to tell them that Christians do not have enough intelligence to respond to them sincerely? If we would live in the market place and on the street, let us be wise enough to be able to engage the philosophical discussion where the people are and at their level. Whereas it used to be true that the pastor was the educated one and the people were largely uneducated, this situation has changed dramatically in the last fifty years.
There may not be too much left of the debating society in our land today, but deeply philosophical issues surrounding the arguments for the existence of God are now current in the media and deep questions are being asked. Television pictures of suffering around the world, the noise of war, the sight of blood and the reality of death confront us daily, and such images have caused deeply philosophical questions about the existence of God to be asked in newspapers, current affairs programmes, radio talk shows and Internet sites. One has only to look back to September 11th in a certain year to find the truth of that.
Is the church silent on these questions? That no-one is looking to the church for an answer to these questions only highlights the problem that we face when we hide behind theology expressed in archaic terms and view philosophy as a contagious disease – I won’t touch it lest I catch something! Is there in the church a mistrust of philosophy? Perhaps even a fear?
“Christians all too easily take for granted things that need to be questioned and treat as divine absolutes patterns of belief and behaviour that are human and relative,” says Deere. This is surely true in theological and philosophical terms in a church that suppresses curiosity and frowns at questions. Are we frightened of questions because of the paucity of our knowledge?
See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ. But to follow Paul’s direction here, it is necessary to know which philosophies are hollow and deceptive and which are deep and meaningful; ignorance does not help anyone, and especially not the intelligent. Let us seek to know, that we may seek to show.
I have shown that, while philosophical arguments for the existence of God do not provide unmistakable proof of the existence of God, they do at least allow human beings to begin to try and make sense of their lives, and of the loss of life. “Man by reason cannot know God; he can only know about God,” as Tozer said. But knowing about God is surely better than not knowing at all, and we can more easily reach those who know about God than those who know nothing about God.
Philosophical arguments for the existence of God cannot produce God any more than my singing a song can produce the author of that song. Philosophical arguments cannot destroy God any more than my disliking of a song can destroy the author of that song. Of course the arguments for the existence of God do not, in the end, prove anything, because, as Tozer points out, “there is a kind of truth which can never be grasped by the intellect, for the intellect exists for the apprehension of ideas, and this truth consists not in ideas but in life. Divine truth is of the nature of spirit and for that reason can be received only by spiritual revelation.”
But, if intellectual wrestling “opens up the possibility of a discovery of God in Christ in the church,” says Alston, even though it doesn’t make that discovery itself, there is still a great benefit to be had from intellectual wrestling. Brown said that “No system of philosophy has ever turned out to be complete and perfect,” but then we who are not perfect are dealing with those who are not perfect. Every tool is useful to the wise workman, and the arguments for the existence of God are no exception. Are we wise workmen to our congregations?
I leave the last word to John Stott: “Although we must not overestimate our congregation’s intellectual capacity, we must not underestimate it either. My plea is that we treat them as real people with real questions; that we grapple in our sermons with real issues; and that we build bridges into the real world in which they live and love, work and play, laugh and weep, struggle and suffer, grow old and die. We have to provoke them to think about their life in all its moods, to challenge them to make Jesus Christ the Lord of every area of it, and to demonstrate His contemporary relevance.”
Colin Brown, Philosophy and the Christian Faith, (London, Inter-Varsity Press, 1969)
Dr Jack Deere, Surprised By The Voice Of God, (Eastbourne, Kingsway Publications, 1996)
Dr Jack Deere, Surprised By The Power Of The Spirit, (Grand Rapids, Zondervan Publishing House, 1993)
Professor Nels F S Ferré, ‘The Relation Between Religion and Philosophy’, The Expository Times, Volume LXXIII, No 3, December 1961, pages 89 to 93
David A Pailin, ‘The Function of the Philosophy of Religion’, The Expository Times, Volume LXXXIV, No 11, August 1973, pages 325 to 329
Peterson, Hasker, Reichenbach and Basinger, Reason & Religious Belief, [Second edition], (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1998)
H D Lewis, Philosophy of Religion, (London, English Universities Press, 1965)
Professor John MacQuarrie, ‘The Philosophical School of Logical Analysis’, The Expository Times, Vol LXXV No 2, November 1963, pages 45-48
Editor: Thomas V Morris, God and the Philosophers, (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1994)
Iain H Murray, D Martyn Lloyd-Jones – The First Forty Years, (Edinburgh, Banner Of Truth Trust, 1982)
Iain H Murray, D Martyn Lloyd-Jones – The Fight Of Faith, (Edinburgh, Banner Of Truth Trust, 1990)
John Stott, I Believe In Preaching, (London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1982)
A W Tozer, Faith Beyond Reason, (Bromley, STL Books, 1987)
A W Tozer, A Treasury Of Tozer Favourites, (Bromley, STL Books, 1981)