How do we know God exists? Over the years, when I have been asked this question, I used to just jump to an argument for God. I would sit down and try to explain it in detail to the individual. I have now decided to take a different approach and back up: I ask the person “How should we approach the existence of God?” or, “ What method should we use?” Now I know that when you ask a Christian, Jewish person or Muslim, and Mormon as well how they know what they believe is true, they might just say, “I have faith.” This should cause us to stop and ask if that is an adequate answer. It probably won’t go very far in a skeptical and pluralistic culture. So in this post I want to discuss some of the various ways we can approach the existence of God. I am well aware that there are other methods as well.
#1: The Revelatory Approach
The skeptical issue in our culture mostly enters into the religious dialogue in the following way: “In the case of God, who isn’t some physical object but a divine being, what kind of evidence should we expect to find? There is a tendency to forget that the Bible stresses that sin can dampen the cognitive faculties that God has given us to find Him. Therefore, sin has damaging consequences on the knowing process (Is. 6:9-10; Zech. 7:11-12; Matt. 13:10-13). Thus, people are dead, blinded, and bound to sin.
Christianity stresses that the God of the Bible is capable of giving a revelation to mankind through a specific medium. One of the most important themes of the Bible is that since God is free and personal, that he acts on behalf of those whom he loves, and that his actions includes already within history, a partial disclosure of his nature, attributes, and intensions. Revelation is a disclosure of something that has been hidden– an “uncovering,” or “unveiling.” There are three things are needed for a revelation to take place: God, a medium, and a being able to receive the revelation.
The mediums God uses in the Bible are General Revelation (The Created Order/Conscience; Rom. 1&2); Special Revelation: Jesus (John 3:16; 14:9; Colossians 2:9; Heb. 1:1-2), The Bible (2 Tim. 3:16); Miracles, Prophecy, Theophanies, Missionaries/Messengers, and other means as well.
But why the need for revelation? First, we need to know the character of God. Hence, we need a clear communication to establish the exact nature of God’s character. Who is God and what is He Like? Also, we need a revelation to understand the origin of evil/the Fall. In other words, we need to be educated concerning the reasons for where we are at as a human race. Furthermore, without a clear revelation, people might think they are the result of a blind, naturalistic process instead of being created in the image of God. And without a clear revelation we would not know our destiny.
The skeptic constantly assumes that if they could just see God directly or if God would give them an unmistakable sign that He is there, they would bow their knee and follow Him. Sadly, this is misguided on several levels. God declares, “You cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live” (Exodus 33:20). However, there seems to be other texts that indicate people did see God. Even in Exodus 33:11 Moses speaks to God “face to face.” Obviously, “face to face” is a figure of speech which means they were in close communion or conversation.
Also, in Genesis 32:30, Jacob saw God appearing as an angel. But he did not truly see God. In Genesis 18:1, it says the Lord appeared to Abraham. Obviously, there are other cases where God appears in various forms. But this is not the same thing as seeing God directly with all His glory and holiness. It is evident that people can’t see God in all His fullness (Exodus 33:20). For if they did, they would be destroyed. Jesus is the ultimate revelation of God and he shows the world who God is (Heb. 1:1).
Let me expand on the miracles/prophecy issue a little bit: There seems to be a pattern of how God works in the history of Israel. Every time he is doing something new in their midst, he confirmed what he was doing through a prophet. Signs are used to provide evidence for people to believe the message of God through a prophet of God.
We see this is an important feature with Moses and Jesus:
1. God says to Moses, “I will be with you. And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you” (Exod. 3:12).
2. When Moses asks God, “What if they do not believe me or listen to me?” the Lord gives Moses two “signs”: his rod turns into a snake (Exod. 4:3) and his hand becomes leprous (Exod. 4:1–7).
3. Moses “performed the signs before the people, and they believed; … they bowed down and worshiped” (Exod. 4:30–31).
“Sign”(sēmeion) is used seventy-seven times (forty-eight times in the Gospels). Remember that the prophet Isaiah spoke of a time where miraculous deeds would be the sign of both the spiritual and physical deliverance of Israel (Isa.26: 19; 29:18-19; 35:5-6; 42:18; 61:1). Also:
- The word “sign” is reserved for what we would call a miracle.
- “Sign” is also used of the most significant miracle in the New Testament, the resurrection of Jesus from the grave.
- Jesus repeated this prediction of his resurrection when he was asked for a sign (Matt. 16:1, 4). Not only was the resurrection a miracle, but it was a miracle that Jesus predicted (Matt. 12:40; 16:21; 20:19; John 2:19).
- Nicodemus said of Jesus “We know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him” (John 3:2).
- “Jesus the Nazarene was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know” (Acts 2:22).
To see more, see our post “Who Do You Say I Am? A Look at Jesus
Challenges to the Revelation Argument
There is no doubt going to be challenges to the revelation argument. After all, the Bible is considered to be God’s revelation to mankind. However, The Quran, The Book of Mormon, and other holy books are considered to be The Word of God. Who has it right? That is why the revelation argument will generally lead us to utilize historical apologetics (see next point).
#2: Historical Arguments/Prophecy
When it comes to historical arguments, we ask if God has revealed Himself in the course of human history? If so, when and where has He done this? We can look at religious texts and see if they pass the tests for historicity. Thus, we enter the domain of historical apologetics.
For example, former atheist Anthony Flew said the resurrection of Jesus was the best attested miracle claim that he had seen (see There Is A God? How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind(New York: Harper Collins, 2007). Another aspect of the historical argument is the argument from prophecy. Fulfilled prophecy does not prove the existence of God, but it does show that events predicted in his Name that come to pass are evidence of his special activity. See more here: Is Jesus the Messiah? The Messianic Task or here: The Argument from Miracles: A Cumulative Case for the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.
God as an Explanatory Hypothesis?
Paul says that God’s existence and attributes can be “clearly seen” (Romans 1:18-20) since they have been “shown” to the unbelieving world through “the things that are made” (nature). Notice that Paul never posits that we can view God as a material object. But he does say that people should be able to look at the effects in the world and infer that there is a Creator.
So what has been made (i.e., designed, created)? The laws of nature? The existence and fine tuning of the universe? The Genetic Code? Or, does nature and chance act on their own without any agency? C.S. Lewis said that “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” ( The Weight of Glory, “Is Theology Poetry?” (1944), para. 24, p. 92). To apply what Lewis says, we can utilize what is called inference to the best explanation. The inference to the best explanation model takes into account the best available explanation in our whole range of experience and reflection. Another example of this approach is seen in a book like A Meaningful World: How the Arts and Sciences Reveal the Genius of Nature by Benjamin Wiker and Jonathan Witt.
Also, using God as an explanatory explanation is seen in philosophical theology or natural theology arguments. The book The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology does a fine job in handling this issue.
To see a short example of this approach online see, The Return of the God Hypothesis by Stephen C. Meyer or Paul Copan’s God: The Best Explanation
Many people might ask why I would bring this one up. The reason I mention it is because about 70% of people I talk to about Christianity object to it by saying ” I don’t understand what difference Christianity would make in my life?” This is a very popular approach. I’ve even had atheists tell me that they don’t even care if a belief is true. Hence, as long as it makes a practical difference in one’s life is all that matters. In this argument, many people say their religious beliefs have been tried and tested out in the reality of life. Thus, they think their beliefs correspond to reality because they do make a difference. In other words, “Christianity works because it is true!”
This does have some merit. After all, if the Christian faith is the one true path, it should make a radical difference in the reality of life. The challenge of this argument is that in some cases, it seems Christianity doesn’t work. Christians have challenges in their families, work related issues and relationships. However, just because Christians don’t always reflect the character of Jesus and don’t always show the difference it makes, this doesn’t mean Christianity is false. Furthermore, the Gospel is not “What Can Jesus Do For Me?” but instead a call to die to ourselves and follow the Lord (Luke 9:23).
It could be that the person is not under healthy teaching/discipleship or living in sin. So the pragmatic argument can be a tricky one. Everyone knows that while Christians have done some amazing things for the world (see here), we also have some inconsistencies. In the end, a pragmatic test for truth isn’t going to cut it. After all, Mormons can testify as to why Mormonism helps them have strong families. Black Muslims can testify in prison that Islam has helped them be more responsible. But these things don’t make Mormonism nor Islam true. So the first question is whether the Christian story is actually true. The claim “The Biblical God exists,” or “Jesus rose from the dead” must correspond to reality. So I think it is incumbent upon me to explain what objective truth is and how we can’t avoid it!
#5: Existential Arguments
The latest book by Clifford Williams Called Existential Reasons For Belief in God is another approach to why people believe in God. According to Williams, for some people logic and reason are dominant and in others emotion and satisfaction of needs are dominant.
Williams mentions 10 existential needs from his book:
- the need for cosmic security
- the need for meaning
- the need to feel loved
- the need to love
- the need for awe
- the need to delight in goodness
- the need to live beyond the grave without the anxieties that currently affect us
- the need to be forgiven
- the need for justice and fairness
- the need to be present with our loved ones
There are several other approaches to the existence of God. Given humans are emotional, intellectual, and volitional creatures, there is no “one size fits all approach.” I hope that has caused you to go further in the question of God’s existence.