Can we be certain of God s existence? The short answer is, no. If the question is whether we can have something like mathematical certainty or proof, we have to answer that question in the negative. There is no evidence, no proof or argument that can provide certainty that God exists for finite beings such as ourselves.
Such evidence, proof or argument would have to be built on premises that are 100% certain, and that kind of certainty is impossible for beings that are not all-knowing. The best we can do is to arrive at evidence, proofs and arguments that suggest a probability that God exists. The same is true, or course, for the proposition that God does not exist.
To this extent, doubt is the common experience of saints and sinners alike.
To put this another way: Can we be sure that God doesn’t exist? The only certainty is that we can’t be certain.
Many believers have doubts, and many nonbelievers have their own doubts.
For the believer, we find in the Scripture a God who embraces us in our doubts. When a man with a troubled son came to Jesus, Jesus asked him if he believed, and the man confessed, “I believe, help my unbelief”. Significantly, Jesus didn’t rebuke the man or turn him away because he doubted. Jesus responded by healing the man’s son. We can take comfort in this response which is a demonstration of God’s character in Jesus.
From this story and other, similar provisions in the Bible, we should have confidence in taking our doubts to God in honest, heartfelt prayer. If we come to God, even faltering in doubt, He will not reject us. If we can extrapolate anything from this story, it is that God is ready, able and willing to show us proof – but it won’t be the kind of proof that equates to mathematical certainty.
“The idea of certainty is a will-o-the-wisp”, according to Dr. William Lane Craig, “that is irrelevant to Christian conviction. It sets up a false standard as to what knowledge is.”
Certainty is an unrealistic standard to apply to any proposition (outside of mathematics, perhaps). There are very few things we can be certain of as finite beings, and many things we think are certain may not warrant our confidence.
Arguments and proofs will always be based on premises that are less than certain. As long as they are more probable than not, we can have some degree of confidence in the conclusions, but real certainty is a naïve fantasy.
Certainty, in a colloquial sense, is more of a personal willingness to be swayed, than a proof on which we can be certain in a mathematical sense. What might convince me might not convince you. I might be willing to err on the side of this, while you might be willing to err on the side of its opposite.
This is the human condition. We each have to find our own comfort levels where we are willing to repose our confidence.
For Dr. Craig, as for many people, we find more certainty in “the witness of the Holy Spirit” than in factual evidence and logical arguments. This is not to say that I would be content to believe in the face of contrary evidence. In fact, I wouldn’t! But, I don’t have anything like mathematical certainty, and I hold no illusions that I ever will.
Dr. Craig calls it a “non-rational certainty” that God exists. Note, however, that he didn’t say irrational.
The internal witness of the Holy Spirit is a personal “proof”. It’s nothing that would convince the person sitting next to me. It’s personal to me. Others might call it subjective, but because the experience is so intimately personal, it satisfies me, and it is bolstered by objective evidence and logic.
In truth, the “witness of the Holy Spirit” isn’t a purely subjective experience. As the apostle Paul first said, “the Spirit testifies with our spirit”. (Romans 8:16)
We might entertain doubts that it is, but we find some confidence in the fact that others have shared the same experience. When we share notes with others, we find remarkable similarities among the intimately personal experiences. In fact, we share the experience with the Holy Spirit in common with all Christians who have experienced Him.
Jesus promised the Holy Spirit to us as a Helper “to be with you forever … for he dwells with you and will be in you…. the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.” (John 14:16-17, 26)
Another way of describing the phenomenon of the Holy Spirit is the idea of being “filled with the Spirit”. (See Micah 3:8; Luke 1:41; Acts 2:4; Acts 6:3; Acts 7:5; Acts 9:7; Acts 11:24; Acts 13:9, 52; and Ephesians 5:18. Paul also describes the experience as being “sealed with the Holy Spirit”:
“when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, [you] were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it….” (Ephesians 1:13-14)
Following is the insightful observations of a former New Age adherent comparing his experience with the Holy Spirit to his experiences with New Age meditation, astral projection and other such things. He was not just any New Age follower; he used to run one of the largest, most commercially profitable New Age websites on the Internet. Listen to his description of experiencing the Holy Spirit (compared to his New Age experiences):
In response to the question, whether we can have certainty that God exists, the long answer is a qualified, yes!
That certainty, however, won’t come through evidence, arguments or logic. The existence of God isn’t antithetical to evidence, argument or logic. Those tools can point us toward God. They can, and I believe they do, suggest that the existence of God is more likely than not. Those tools can and have convinced many very intelligent people that God’s existence is more probable than not, but those tools can’t give mathematical certainty to finite creatures such as ourselves because we don’t ultimately know what we don’t know.
When we read through the Old Testament, we see the people of Israel continuously reminded of the miraculous things that God did for them – the parting of the Red Sea, for instance – and they are continually reminded to recall these things to assuage their doubts. More often than not, they failed to be convinced, not unlike many of us today.
When Jesus performed miracles right in front of crowds of people, some of those people didn’t believe. Even though they didn’t discount supernatural things like we do today, they didn’t believe was who he said he was.
For most people today, the “proof” of God’s existence and beneficence toward us is not in the outward display of the miraculous, but in the inward witness of the Holy Spirit. That inward witness is more subtle, nuanced and ethereal, but it is also more sure because we carry Him with us.
Rational thinking can only carry us so far – to what edge of what we know, but there are so many things we don’t know. Experience can only carry us so far – we can’t ultimately trust our own, subjective experiences because we are easily swayed by our own inclinations.
We can trust the Holy Spirit, though, who is not just logic or a feeling or even just a voice in our heads. We can distinguish him from our own voice and from all the voices in the outside world.