Wednesday, 20 January 2010

How do we know that God exists?

This is the second in a series in which we try and understand the most common objections to the Christian faith. Last week we responded to the objection that it doesn’t matter what we believe. You can find that here.
This time we’re thinking about how we can know that God exists.
Once again we’ll think about the answer to four questions
  • What do people mean?
  • Why do they say it?
  • What’s wrong with what they say?
  • How can we make progress?
1. What do people mean when they say ‘how can I know God exists?’ 

In other words, where are they coming from when they say this?

They could be coming from a place of genuine ignorance. And so what they mean is ‘I honestly don’t know whether God exists. But I’d like to know. And I’m interested in exploring this issue to reach a place of certainty’.

They could be coming from a place of scepticism. And so what they mean is ‘We can’t know whether God exists. And I don’t want to know. I’m not interested in exploring this issue’. For whatever reason they are convinced that there can be no God, there is no supernatural and that this world is all that there is.

And so it could be a question asked by someone seeking an answer or someone avoiding the Christian answer. They could be open minded on the issue of God's existence and want to examine the evidence. Or they could be close minded on the issue of God's existence and want to rubbish the evidence.

2. Why do people say that they don’t know whether God exists?

I think the single biggest reason is that God is invisible. We can’t see him and that creates issues for us in terms of knowing whether he’s there. The Bible acknowledges this issue when in John’s Gospel chapter 1 verse 18 the writer states ‘no one has seen God’. But I also think that there are two other reasons.

People misunderstand faith. Faith is commonly understood as ‘believing something for which there isn’t any evidence’. Therefore people assume that there’s no evidence to examine. And so if we simply can’t be certain whether God exists or not, what’s the point of investigating something for which there’s no evidence. But faith needs evidence otherwise it stops being faith and starts being speculation or superstition. Faith as understood on the Bible’s terms is going where the evidence is pointing.

People misunderstand knowledge. We often get confused about knowledge and especially about how we know things. Most of us fail to recognise that there are different types of knowledge. We know different kinds of things in different ways. And so we can end up looking in the wrong place if we want to know something. If I can put it this way, ‘we need to know how we know what we know’. For example,
  • I know that 1 + 1 is 2 and therefore 2 + 2 is 4 from my mathematical knowledge. I can prove that to you using intuitive mathematical logic
  • I know that if I hit my hand with a hammer it hurts from my personal knowledge of the experience. I can prove that to you by hitting your hand with a hammer!
  • I know that Gordon Brown is the Prime Minister from the news reports on the television, BBC website and the Times newspaper. I can prove that to you by going online.
  • I know a bit about the Second World War from the Imperial War museum. I can prove that to you by showing you historical documents
How we come to know things is different depending on the nature of the things that we want to know. We assume that we do know things and are prepared to act on that knowledge. But different kinds of knowledge are required in different ways. And so, I don’t use a calculator to find out who’s the Prime Minister. I don’t read the Times to find out more about the Second World War. I don’t use a hammer to discover the square root of 42. You learn different kinds of things in different ways.

So when we say ‘is God there?’ we may not find the answer if we don’t use the right kind of knowledge. And so to find out whether God exists we have to know what type of knowledge we’re talking about. So how would we come to know that? We’d come to know of God’s existence through historical knowledge because the claim of Christianity is that God appeared on earth in the person of the historical character called Jesus Christ.

If God is there what would convince you that he is there. In the same verse I mentioned earlier the John goes on ‘but God the one and only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known’. In other words, someone other than God the Father namely God the Son has revealed what God is like. This person is none other than Jesus Christ, as verse 14 makes clear. And so if we want to know that God exists we need to look at the person of Jesus. And that makes perfect sense. After all, I don’t prove my existence to you with philosophical logic. I speak to you. God is not the conclusion of rational argument. He’s personal but he’s also infinite and the creator. We are finite and created and that limits how we can come to know him. The initiative must rest with him if we are ever going to be convinced of his existence. And he took the initiative when he came to earth in the person of his son, Jesus Christ.

3. What’s wrong with saying that God doesn’t exist?

There are two major issues with atheism, as I see it

i. It’s difficult to justify
The atheist assumes that God doesn’t exist. It’s a faith position built on the conviction that there is no God. It assumes that God is not there until his existence is proven. And so the onus of proof rests with the Christian. I don’t mind that and I’m happy to defend my position. But why should we assume that God doesn’t exist? Is that a reasonable assumption to make? Why not assume that God does exist? After all what evidence is there that God doesn’t exist? How can the atheist be so sure that God doesn’t exist? And if they don’t know why God doesn’t exist why do they base their life on the gamble that he’s not there? If we’re going to base our life on something that we don’t know, why not base it on God’s existence rather than his non-existence? There’s a bias there that we need to be aware of.

Assertion – their faith position
The God of the Bible exists
There is no such thing as God
Evidence – why they believe what they believe
There’s evidence for God’s existence
There’s no evidence for God’s existence
Conversion – what’s required to change their mind
Requires the Atheist to disprove God’s existence
Requires the Christian to prove God’s existence

ii. It ignores the evidence
Christians have characteristically responded to the question of God’s existence with a number of so called proofs. These include, but are not limited to,
  • the argument from creation which points to the existence of a God who’s a powerful designer order of the universe
  • the argument from experience which points to the existence of a supernatural God who explains the spiritual
  • the argument from conscience which points to the existence of a God who provides the basis for universal objective morality
They’re not bad. They can be helpful. But none of them is ultimately persuasive. But there is one argument that’s compelling; God has pitched up in person in human history. He has made himself known by appearing in person in Jesus Christ.

When Jesus was asked by Philip to give him a glimpse of God Jesus replied with these words, ‘Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father’ (John 14). It was Jesus’ conviction that he made the invisible God known. He claimed to be God in the flesh. That claim is either true or it’s false. And the Christian claim that there is a God stands or falls on the identity of Jesus.

4. How can we progress the conversation?
We need to take this question seriously and acknowledge that it really matters. Encourage people not simply to make assumptions about this but to examine the reasons why they believe the things that they do.It’s not reasonable or responsible to not think about this issue.

And encourage people to recognise that we all come to this discussion with conclusions already in our minds.  Someone said to me recently that she knew that the Gospels must be unreliable because she knew that God does not exist. She was prepared to accept that the Gospels establish the divinity of Jesus. She just wasn't prepared to accept that they were accurate in what they teach because her presupposition, from rational argument she would claim, is that there is no God. We need to try and suspend judgement whilst we examine the evidence.

So what do we do? There are questions to ask of the atheist that can lead to fruitful discussion.
  • What would God have to do to convince you that he’s there?
  • Who do you think Jesus Christ was and why do you say that?
  • Are you prepared to suspend judgment about whether God exist or not until you’ve re-examined the evidence?
  • Are you prepared to look at the evidence for Jesus?
  • Are you prepared to go where it’s pointing?
As we look at the Bible and especially at Jesus, he'll walk off the page and settle the question of God’s existence for us once and for all.