Arguments for the Existence of God (3)
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)