I really like apologetics. I find it interesting to think about, but apologetics has limited power as a tool to convince people to believe in God. It is not a magic bullet. There is no magic argument to prove the existence of God.
When I see article titles or social media posts that make claims of proving the existence of God, I cringe a little bit. It’s a promise we can’t deliver. We really shouldn’t “go there”. I feel that we should be more honest than that.
Of course, the “promise” depends on the definition of “prove”. The Oxford online dictionary defines the word, “prove”, as follows:
- demonstrate the truth or existence of (something) by evidence or argument. (“The concept is difficult to prove.”)
- demonstrate to be the specified thing by evidence or argument. (“Innocent until proven guilty.”)
If everyone accepted and applied these definitions, perhaps, we could find more common ground. A “proof” in the first sense is just evidence or argument that demonstrates the truth of the existence of something. Whether that proof actually, definitively and absolutely provides the truth or existence of that something, is another matter. A proof in this sense is still open to judgment whether it accomplished the goal.
A proof in the second sense is similar, and the example includes a standard of proof (one that we use in criminal proceedings). This example raises a key point: Without agreement on the standard of proof, the determination whether a proof is successful in proving that point is a moving target.
The success of any evidence or argument in proving a point depends on what standard of proof is applied. Two people may apply two very different standards of proof and, therefore, arrive at two very different conclusions on the determination whether the proof was successful.
Most of the arguments between theists and atheists gloss over and fail to recognize this fundamental issue. Not only do they apply different standards of proof, they make all kinds of different assumptions, and worse: they define their terms differently. It’s no wonder the debates and discussions produce so much disagreement. They are basically talking in foreign languages to each other.
Wikipedia defines “proof” as “sufficient evidence or a sufficient argument for the truth of a proposition.” What is “sufficient” evidence, though, depends on the standard of proof that is applied. Different standards of proof will yield different results.
For instance, we generally apply different standards of proof in the American legal system in different contexts. In civil cases, the applicable standard of proof is “more likely than not”, and in criminal proceedings, the applicable standard of proof is “beyond a reasonable doubt”.
Proving a case under the “more likely than not” standard is much easier than proving a case “beyond a reasonable doubt”. The higher standard (“beyond a reasonable doubt”) is designed for criminal cases with the purpose of causing “the system” to err on the side of finding a guilty person innocent (rather than erring on the side of convicting innocent people).
At least, that is the theory. People still disagree on the outcomes of criminal cases, and innocent people are sometimes found guilty, even when applying the much higher standard of proof. I am reminded of the axiom: to err is human.
These problems of proof are inevitable for finite beings. We don’t know what we don’t know, and we are always prone to “getting it wrong”. If we don’t take that limitation seriously, we become arrogant and prideful.
Therefore, I am reminded of the propriety of maintaining humility. Even if we are certain in our own minds of the truth of a matter, we should be mindful of the human tendency to get things wrong.
This is where faith comes in. Faith, in part, is an exercise in humility. Faith is the inevitable condition of being human, and that goes for faith in the truth that science reveals and faith in the truth that the Bible reveals. Let me explain.
When the Bible says that we must have faith to believe in God, it isn’t being “unscientific”. It is recognizing a profound truth – that we, human beings, finite creatures that we are, will never have absolute, objective proof of anything. This is true of the existence of God, and it is true in science.
That doesn’t mean there is no such thing as absolute, objective truth. It just means that the ability for finite beings (like humans) to know what absolute, objective truth is, and to understand it completely, is limited and subject to us getting it wrong.
Apologetics, as a rule, is nothing more than giving an answer (a defense, an apologia, a proof if you will) for the hope that we have. Peter tells us to be ready always to provide an answer “to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have”. (1 Peter 3:15 (emphasis added))
It seems that much of the apologetics we do is trying to convince people who aren’t asking for an answer. That effort, perhaps, is attempting to accomplish something that apologetics was never meant to do and is beyond the power of apologetics to accomplish.
Consider apologetics in light of the Great Commission. The Great Commission is the instruction Jesus gave the eleven disciples on top of a mountain in Galilee, Jesus said to them:
“[G]o and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Matt. 28:19-20)
He told the disciples to go and make disciples. The eleven disciples were men who believed and followed Jesus (some of them despite the doubts they had (see Matt. 28:17)). The Great Commission consists of disciples discipling other people who believe and wish to follow Jesus.
Jesus had earlier sent the twelve disciples out “to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal the sick”. (Luke 9:2) He added the following instruction:
“If people do not welcome you, leave their town and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.” (Luke 9:5)
Jesus doesn’t tell the disciples that they must try to convince people who don’t want to be convinced. Rather, he seems to tell the disciples, essentially, that they don’t need to waste their time with people who don’t or won’t believe.
But the there is the example of Isaiah, who was directed by God in the Temple to go and preach to the people of Israel a message they would not accept or understand. (Isaiah 6:8-10) When Isaiah asked, “How long do you want me to do that?”, God said, “Until the people are driven out of the land and the land is forsaken!” (Isaiah 6:11-13)
Imagine getting that assignment!
It might seem to many people doing apologetics today is not much different than what Isaiah experienced in his day. Maybe some people are called to be like Isaiah, and others are called to be like the disciples who shook the dust off their sandals and left the towns that didn’t welcome them.
When Jesus spoke and performed signs and wonders in front of crowds of people, some of them did not believe what he was saying, either.
It will always be like that. If many people didn’t believe Jesus, they aren’t going to believe us, no matter what evidence or argument we give people or the standard of proof that is applied.
Faith is a requirement for belief in God. It’s as simple as that. Without faith, no one can believe.
If that sounds unscientific, it really isn’t, as I have already said. Faith is the inevitable position of a finite being who does not know all there is to know.
We must take a lot of things on faith. Frankly, we must take everything on faith.
This is true in science as well as theology. We must believe in things that we cannot see, like muons, nuons, and neutrinos. Even mathematical axioms that we take for granted are things we must take on faith. The axioms “work”, so we have confidence in them, but they are assumptions, nevertheless, that we can’t prove.
In similar sense, faith in God “works” for the believer. God makes sense of the world. This is, I believe, what CS Lewis meant in his great essay, The Weight of Glory, when he said:
“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.”
In similar sense, Scientists believe in dark matter. Dark matter makes up approximately 96% of the universe, and scientists believe in it, though they can’t see it and don’t know what it is. They must “take it on faith”, but it makes sense of what they can see.
At the most fundamental level, people either believe in God, or they don’t. That fundamental assumption informs how a person sees the world and behaves in the world.
Those different fundamental assumptions will inevitably lead to different standards of proof, different definitions of terms, and different outcomes when it comes to the existence of God. Thus, an atheist cannot prove there is no God, and a theist cannot prove there is, at least not in the sense of an objective proof that is apparent and acceptable to all people.
If we put different assumptions, terms and standards of proof into our “equations”, we will necessarily produce different outcomes. Those things that we put into our equations drive the outcomes.
As a case in point, consider that the atheist assumes that space/time and matter are all that exist. If the atheist is “looking for God” in the dimensions of space/time and matter, she will never find what she is looking for.
If God exists as the theist conceives God, God exists “outside” and beyond the confines of the material world. This conception of a creator of the material world requires that the creator be “Other” than the creation.
It’s illogical, therefor, to think that creation created itself. For something to create space/time and matter, a finite time ago, that Something must be spaceless, timeless, immaterial and transcendent.
How do you measure a Being that transcends your ability to measure it? That is the fundamental problem with “proving” the existence of God by science. It can’t be done. Not by finite beings bounded by space/time and matter (who limit themselves to the tools produced by space/time and matter).
Of course, we live in a four-dimensional world. That fourth dimension is energy – something that science has yet to explain adequately. We see its effects. We can measure them, but we have no idea what the energy is that causes those effects.
We could say, simply, that God is energy, but energy depends on something for its existence, unless energy (itself) is the uncaused cause that created all that exists. We don’t see any evidence for that, however. Energy (as science describes it) seems to be wrapped up together with space/time and matter that emanated from a single “point” in the finite past.
Thus, we must consider other possibilities. The multiverse or string theory hypotheses are contenders. Even these theories, though, do not escape the requirement of a beginning and, therefore, a cause.
Science and math have proven the necessity of a point of “singularity” (a beginning to the universe), and science and math prove that multiverses and string theory do not avoid that requirement. (They simply push the beginning back in time.)
These theories also go beyond our ability to prove them with science. They do provide a theoretical explanation for our universe, but we can’t prove them any more than we can prove a transcendent God. Both God and a multiverse are axioms that most be assumed, but cannot be proven.
The inescapable requirement of faith applies to the determination whether the universe makes more sense in the context of a transcendent creator or without one. Pick your poison. It’s a choice that we make, and faith is the confidence we rest in that choice.
As this blog article is getting long in the tooth, and I have more things in my mind that I want to work out, I will continue this thought process in another article. Stay tuned if you are interested.