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Rethinking the need to prove that God exists

Unsplash/Jeremy Perkins

Do we need to prove that God exists? In a recent Christian Post op-ed, one author emphatically says no. The author says that many think “evidence against God’s existence is too overwhelming” and “despite all epistemological and ontological evidence to prove the existence of God, many remain unconvinced.” He personally finds long debates about God pointless and believes they could even lead some to anger and sin against God. Some would make the case that the Scriptures themselves seem to direct us away from such arguments. As the author rhetorically asks, “Should we really lose time trying to convince [skeptics]?”

The many struggle

As my professor and co-founder of Southern Evangelical Seminary, the late Dr. Norman Geisler used to say when students complained that something was over their heads, you can either put the cookies on a lower shelf or get them to stand on their tiptoes. I agree that many, including myself, struggle with arguments for God’s existence. But my research has led me to conclude that the problem does not reside with the arguments themselves but with at least three often overlooked issues.

First, as Thomas Aquinas in his Summa contra Gentiles rightly observed of people, most will not or cannot put the intellectual effort into understanding arguments for God’s existence. As such, many will accept God’s existence by faith, that is, by the authority of another such as a pastor, parent, or Scripture apart from demonstration. That is a legitimate position, but it does not remove the truth that the existence of God can be proved by human reason apart from Scripture, as we find in the study of natural theology.

Second, Aristotle rightly recognized that rhetoric plays a significant role in society. However, if one simply gets caught up in rhetoric, it often leads to a misuse of rhetoric and a misunderstanding of the arguments for God. The extensive intellectual work by many Christian thinkers put forward throughout time is meant to address such misuses. Hence, many people may only be exposed to a superficial social-media-type version of these arguments that pales in comparison to the rich ancient and medieval intellectual history behind such arguments.

Third, for those who ask for a demonstration of God’s existence, the issue becomes much more complicated given the West has largely abandoned the classical thinking that laid the foundation for an intellectually robust view of Christianity, as well as morality, science, politics, and theology in general. Our modern society has not passed down to its generations the contributions of Aristotle, as well as those who took his mantle, to logic, ethics, and more. This has produced a culture with gaps in modern knowledge and challenges to overcome when it comes to people’s ability to fully understand and process lines of reasoning and the weight of evidence. As others have noted, it is not always the arguments for God themselves that are difficult. Rather, the difficulty arises with the necessity of removing the decades, and even centuries, of bad philosophy that is ingrained in our culture which obscures the arguments.

Hence, given that many cannot or do not want to pursue such knowledge and society has largely abandoned the foundation of Western thought, it is no wonder we are left with many struggling and remaining unconvinced concerning arguments for God’s existence and even the nature of reality itself. The good news is that none of this affects, alters, or diminishes the nature of reality or the arguments themselves that can be put forward for God’s existence.

Is the evidence for God unconvincing?

Arguments for God’s existence should be divided into two broad categories: those that demonstrate the existence of God and those that strongly suggest the existence of God. Only a philosophical argument can fit the first category.  A sound argument for God leads to a necessary conclusion that is a kind of demonstration, not only that God exists, but that God must exist in a certain way and not any other way. The kind of demonstration offered is not evidential. Rather, it looks at effects and reasons that they must have a cause that is necessary and eternal (something quite unlike the effects). As scholar Joseph Owens says in his article “Aquinas and the Five Ways,” “Other [evidential] arguments may vividly suggest the existence of God … But on the philosophical level these arguments are open to rebuttal and refutation, forthey are not philosophically cogent.

Does Scripture direct us away from arguments for God?

Like the Apostle Paul, we should distinguish between good reasoning and evidence used in arguments from foolish or sinful arguing. The Apostle readily engaged in reasoning and evidence to give arguments. Acts is replete with descriptions of Paul’s defense of the Gospel that involved “reasoning” (Acts 17:2, 17, 18:4, 19, 19:8, 9, 26:23) and “persuasion” (Acts 17:4, 19:26, 18:24). To the pagans, he could appeal to creation as to why there is only one God. He appealed to Christ’s death, burial, and appearances as evidence and proof for the miracle of the resurrection and divinity of Christ (Acts 14:15-17, 17:22-34). Even still, not everyone believed.

We should expect similar results as Paul’s — not everyone will believe. Valid and sound reasoning and arguments are not done because they “work” and not abandoned because they “don’t work.” Rather, they are done because they are true. As 1 Peter 3:15 tells us, an honest inquiring skeptic deserves, and God expects Christians to be prepared to give a well-reasoned answer.

Nowhere in Scripture does it say or insinuate that it is “folly” to offer an argument for the existence of God. Indeed, the apostle Paul not only opens the gate to natural theology in practice, but he leaves it open in teaching. He lays out in Romans 1 his understanding of why pagans know the true God via creation (not Scripture), but because of their sin, they have exchanged this truth for a lie. Even though Paul held that pagans had exchanged knowledge of the true God for a lie, he still appealed to creation as the reason for their knowledge of the true God.

As long as human beings think and reason and are unable to know God directly, then it is not foolish to use arguments for the existence of God whenever and wherever needed, regardless of the response. Do we really need to prove the existence of God? I will follow Paul, Peter, and the rest of the apostles and answer, “Yes, now perhaps more than ever!”

Dr. Doug Potter is Assistant Professor of Apologetics and Theology as well as the Director of the D.Min. program at Southern Evangelical Seminary. Find more from Dr. Potter on the SES blog, on the SES mobile app, or on Dr. Potter’s YouTube channel.

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