“‘Who’ is God and ‘What’ is God?”: Comparing Theism, Deism, Pantheism, and Polytheism: A Closer Look

Note: see Edward Feser’s post called “The one God Further Objection”

From my own experience I would say most discussions about God are centered around the following “isms”- that being Theism, Deism, Pantheism, and Polytheism. So let’s take a look at some of the differences. Please note this is not an extensive treatment of the subject.  Also, if you want to read more about atheism, see our suggested reading list.

1. THEISM

Christianity, Judaism, Islam, are all theistic faiths. One of the major areas of disagreement between these three faiths is the issue about the identity of Jesus. In Orthodox Christianity- Messianic Judaism, Jesus is both God and man/Jesus is an uncreated being. Jesus is the Jewish Messiah as foretold in the Tanakh (the acronym that is formed from the first three parts of the Hebrew Bible) the Torah (the first five books of the Bible), Nevi’ im (the Prophets), and K’ tuvim (the Writings) as well as the second person of the Godhead, equal to the Father and the Holy Spirit (John 1:1; Col. 1:15-19; Phil. 2: 5-11).

Traditional Judaism says Jesus is not the Jewish Messiah as foretold in the Tanakh. Jesus may be simply regarded as a prophet or teacher but not divine. See more here:

Islam, which says Jesus is a prophet also states Jesus was never crucified, and therefore, never risen. The Qur’an was written some six hundred years after the life of Jesus which makes it a much later source of information than the New Testament. So given Judaism, Islam and Christianity/Messianic Judaism all make contradictory claims about Jesus, they all can’t be right. I tend to view Judaism as a true religion but incomplete since the majority of traditional Judaism are missing it on the Messiah issue.

Theism says that the physical universe is not all there is. There is a personal God who created it, sustains it, and can intervene within it in a non-natural way. While God is the primary Cause of singularities, He also uses secondary, or natural causes for the operation of the world.

2. DEISM

Deism is the belief in a God who made the world but who never interrupts its operations with non-natural events. It is a theism minus miracles. God does not interfere with his creation. Rather, he designed it to run independent of him by immutable natural laws. In nature, he has also provided all that his creatures need to live.

PROBLEMS WITH DEISM

Since the universe is dependent in its being, it needs something independent on which to depend- at all times. The universe never ceases to be dependent or contingent. Once contingent always contingent; a contingent being cannot become a Necessary Being, for a Necessary Being cannot come to be or cease to be as a contingent being can. Furthermore, the assertion that miracles do not occur is even more problematic. (1)

Natural laws describe how nature generally behaves. They do not dictate how nature must always behave. As I said, natural laws do nothing and set nothing into motion. A “law of nature” is a description of what happens when no agent (whether it be divine, human, etc) is interfering or intervening into the casual order.

Furthermore, if God has already acted (hence, He did create the universe- the life permitting universe can’t be the result of chance), it begs the question as to whether He has intervened into the world He brought forth. And since there is good evidence He has intervened in the person and work of Jesus the Messiah, the question becomes as to whether people want a God who still intervenes in the world. For if this God does intervene into the world (as seen in Jesus), we as humans are accountable to him.

3. PANTHEISM

Apologetics in the New Age: A Christian Critique of Pantheism

Pantheism is the worldview held by most Hindus, many Buddhists, and other New Age religions. It is also the worldview of Christian Science, Unity, and Scientology.

There are many types of pantheism:

Absolute pantheism is represented by the thinking of the early Greek philosopher Parmenides, who lived in the fifth century before Christ and by the Advainta Vedanta school of Hinduism. This type of pantheism teaches that there is only one being in the world, God. All else that appears to exist does not actually exist.

Emanational pantheism, as set forth by Plotinus in the third century after Christ, holds that everything flows from God, just as a flower unfolds from a seed.

In developmental pantheism, as reflected in the thinking of G. W. F. Hegel (1770–1831), the events of history are viewed as the unfolding manifestations of Absolute Spirit.

Modal pantheism, as espoused by the rationalist Benedict de Spinoza (1632–1677), argues that there is only one absolute Substance in which all finite things are merely modes or moments.

Multilevel pantheism is found in some forms of Hinduism, especially as expressed by Radhakrishnan.12 This view proposes that there are various levels or manifestations of God, the highest level manifesting God as the Absolute One and the lower levels successively manifesting God in greater multiplicity.

Finally, there is permeational pantheism where the Force [Tao] penetrates all things. This kind is found in Zen Buddhism and was popularized in the Star Wars films.

All of these types of pantheism identify God and the world, but they vary in their specific conceptions of this identity. That is, all pantheistic views believe that God and the real world are one, but they differ as to how God and the world are to be identified. (2)

PROBLEMS WITH PANTHEISM

There are several problems with pantheism, but I will mention one. Pantheism fails to adequately handle the problem of evil. To pronounce evil as an illusion or as less than real is not only frustrating and hollow to those experiencing evil, but also philosophically inadequate. If evil is not real, then what is the origin of the illusion? Why has man experienced it for so long, and why does it seem so real? Despite the pantheist’s claims to the contrary, he, along with the rest of us, experiences pain, suffering, and eventually death. Even pantheists double over in pain when they get appendicitis. They also jump out of the way of an oncoming truck so as not to get hurt. If the world is not real, then why, when I sit upon a pin and it punctures my skin, do I dislike what I fancy I feel? (3)

Are good and evil are illusory? If so, it seems that they are not real categories. This is what most pantheists believe. But if evil were only an illusion, then ultimately there would be no such thing as good and evil thoughts or actions. Hence, what difference would it make whether we praise or curse, counsel or rape, love or murder someone? (4) Furthermore, Buddhism and Hinduism say the universe is eternal. This means they fail the test of factual adequacy. The latest cosmological evidence has shown the universe has a beginning. In pantheism, if divinity and matter are mystically “one” (so you can’t have god without matter), how is the pantheistic god capable of producing the effect in question such as the origin of space, time? Also, what evidence is there for reincarnation?

Furthermore, since modern pantheism denies miracles, a pantheist does not have to be accountable to a God who is not personal, knowable and has intervened in the person of Jesus Christ. Sounds easier to me!

4. POLYTHEISM

Polytheism is the worldview that many finite gods exist in the world. There are differing versions of polytheism. In some forms, all the gods are more or less equal. Each has a personal sphere or domain. In others, the gods form a hierarchy. Henotheism has a chief god, such as Zeus. In some forms, such as the Greek and Roman pantheons, the number of gods is limited. Mormonism supports an indefinite number of gods. Some forms of polytheism stand alone, unconnected with any other worldview. In Hinduism, however, polytheism and pantheism go hand-in-hand with one impersonal Brahman and 330 million-plus personal manifestations of the one impersonal ultimate Reality.

PROBLEMS WITH POLYTHEISM

If God is infinite, there can’t be more than one infinite Being. To distinguish one being from another, they must differ in some way. If they differ in some way, then one lacks something that the other one has. If one being lacks something that the other one has, then the lacking being is not infinite because an infinite being by definition, lacks nothing. So there can be only be infinite Being. Also, is it more simple to posit that there are many gods instead of one God? Polytheism fails the Ockham’s razor test. To see some of the problems with Mormonism, click here:

BACK TO THEISM

Let’s revisit theism. Here is a helpful quote:

“Suppose you want to answer some specific question. How will you proceed? That depends on what you want to know and how it can be known. For instance, “Where is Kenya?” can be answered by consulting an encyclopedia, looking at a globe, or asking someone who knows. Answering “Did I leave the bedroom light on?” usually requires going to the room to see or asking someone else to go.

Consulting an encyclopedia or  “What is 12 x 12?” can be answered from memory (if you learned your multiplication tables) or by looking at a multiplication table, working out the answer on paper, using a calculator, counting out twelve rows of twelve sticks and then counting through them all, or (again) by asking someone who knows. It cannot be answered by looking at a globe. We ask “What are you thinking?” only of persons—and only the person who is being asked can answer it. We may guess, but we won’t know for certain unless we are told. Consulting encyclopedias, looking at globes, going to another room, or trying to work out the answer on paper aren’t good ways to answer this question. Our primary question is, What is God like? That is what we want to know. Let us assume for the moment that it is possible to know some significant things about God. Yet still we must ask, How can we know them? Our answer to this question depends on the kind of being we think God is.”Mark Talbort, “Does God Reveal Who He Actually Is?” quoted in God Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents God, Douglas S. Huffman, Eric L. Johnson, R. Douglas Geivett, Gerald L. Bray, Bruce A. Ware, Charles Gutenson, James S. Spiegel, Mark R. Talbot, William Lane Craig, Paul Helm, and D. A. Carson/

I will add one thought to this: If we could remember the nature of the object determines how we know it, than for skeptics to constantly say there is no evidence, the first thing to ask “What is the nature of the object they are trying to know?” What is God? Welcome to natural theology. Revealed/Historical theology follows after that.

Recall that ‘proof’ is a loaded term, which turns on our understanding of what constitutes knowledge. There are knowledge claims that are rooted in inference, and are therefore on various levels of probability. Some arguments for God’s existence use this approach. A different approach in terms of ‘proof’ in establishing the existence of God is by metaphysical rational demonstration. This is found in the classical writings of Aristotle, Plotinus, Augustine, Maimonides, Avicenna, Aquinas, & Leibniz. Feser writes that philosophical arguments are still the most adequate approach to showing there is a God—the God of classical theism. The God of classical theism is immutable, immaterial, eternal, uncaused, omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly good, and can’t be compared to created gods that are part of the physical world such as Thor, Zeus, and others. Two recent books that have taken this approach are the following books by former atheist Edward Feser.  Please note that if you want to find out about these thinkers by reading Richard Dawkins, you are already off to the wrong start. You can also see his interview with Ben Shapiro here:

Five Proofs of the Existence of God by [Feser, Edward]

How much we may know about God from rational demonstration, or probabilistic arguments from scientific evidence may not lead us to worship the God of classical theism. So, assuming the arguments are good, and that theism is true, is the God that exists the God of the Bible? At this point, we may venture into the world of history. If there is a God, it makes sense that God would desire to communicate to us—after all, He made us. How are we to determine, of all the religions in the world, which one God has communicated through—if any? Or, has God communicated through some of them, or even all of them? While Christians understand the Old and New Testaments as God’s revelation to mankind, for example, Muslims take it for granted that it is the Quran—not the Bible—which is the Word of God. Mormons have the Book of Mormon, Hindus have the Vedas, animists have oral traditions, and so on.

The good news is that we can detect God’s work in human history and apply historical tests to the Bible or any other religious book. (5) Former atheist Antony Flew said the resurrection of Jesus was the best attested miracle claim that he had seen. (6) In a debate with Gary Habermas, Flew agreed that if it is a knowable fact that Jesus rose from the dead literally and physically it then constitutes “the best, if not the only, reason for accepting that Jesus  is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel.” (7) Remember, all revelatory claims must be taken on a case by case basis. We need to evaluate the evidence for each claim in its own historical and religious context. Thus, we will need to examine the written documents, both oral and eyewitness testimony, as well as archaeological evidence to support the people, place, or events in the documents they have available to them.(8)

In the end, rational demonstration will help us answer to what God is (His nature/metaphysical attributes), but we then need to look into history to see who God is (His character/moral attributes).

Sources:

1. See N. L., Geisler, N. L., and W. D. Watkins, Worlds apart : A Handbook on Worldviews. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House. 1989, 146-182.
2. Ibid, 73-104.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.

5. See Gregory A. Boyd and Paul R. Eddy, The Jesus Legend: A Case For The Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Tradition (Grand Rapids: MI: Baker Books, 2007).

6. Gary R. Habermas, Antony Flew, and David J. Baggett, Did the Resurrection Happen? A Conversation with Gary Habermas and Antony Flew (Downers Grove IL: Intervaristy, 2009), 85.

7. Gary R. Habermas and Antony G. N. Flew, Did Jesus Rise from the Dead? The Resurrection Debate, ed. Terry L. Miethe (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985), 3

8. See Boyd and Eddy, The Jesus Legend: A Case For The Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Tradition (Grand Rapids: MI: Baker Books, 2007).

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