Demonstrating the Existence of God
Why the Metaphysical Proofs for God's Existence Matter
In my last article I discussed what would be entailed in recovering the Great Tradition of metaphysics that was presupposed by those who wrote the Protestant confessions of the 16th and 17th centuries. Many Protestants today do not understand what it means to be a Protestant Christian because they cannot understand the theology of the confessions. This can be seen in the fact that so many people today (including theologians!) cannot makes sense out of the fact that the confessions teach that God is the simple, eternal, immutable, self-existent First Cause of the universe and also that God speaks and acts in history to judge and save. Modern people cannot understand how this is not contradictory. So we need to recover the metaphysics of Nicaea in order to be able to intelligently confess and confidently pass on historic Christian orthodoxy. In this article, I want to take a first step toward doing that by discussing the importance of the proofs for God’s existence.
Today, very few theologians teach that it is possible to demonstrate by reason alone the existence of God and this situation seems normal to most people. But this is actually the first era of Christian history in which this has been true. Most participants in the Great Tradition over the past 2000 years would have agreed with David that it only the fool who says in his heart “There is no God” (Ps. 14:1; 53:1). The early church fathers, Augustine, Anselm, Thomas Aquinas, the Protestant Reformers, Reformed Scholasticism, the Puritans and the Catechism of the Catholic Church all agree the God’s existence can be demonstrated. I believe (1) that this conviction is fundamental to sound metaphysics and (2) that sound metaphysics is fundamental to a healthy culture. In this short essay, I want to make three basic points about this tradition.
The existence of God can be demonstrated with rational certainty; it is not merely a matter of probability.
Belief in the existence of God does not need to be presupposed by a leap of faith.
Denying the existence of God is not a rational act, but an irrational act of rebellion against God.
First of all, the mainstream of the Christian tradition (both Roman Catholic and Protestant) has taught that the existence of God can be demonstrated by reason and is not merely a matter of probability. The metaphysical proofs of God’s existence are different from the apologetic strategy usually employed today in which evidence for God’s existence is marshalled in an attempt to convince you that it is more likely than unlikely that a God does, in fact, exist. Often the apologetic strategies employed are self-consciously and deliberately ad hoc, which is to say that they probe to find a point of common agreement and then build a case from there using various arguments depending on what seems to work. Quite often, this approach is criticized as a “god of the gaps” approach in which one simply appeals to the blank spots that science has not yet filled in with a mechanistic explanation as “proof” that a God must exist to fill in that gap. This approach is seen as inadequate because all one has to do is to wait for science to advance sufficiently so as to fill in the gap.
Traditionally, such approaches were not the primary method of proving God’s existence. They were often used in a slightly different task, namely, that of proving that the Biblical God is, in fact, the metaphysical God. Appeal to miracles was especially important here. But the existence of God in the first place was demonstrated by rationally certain arguments prior to the second step of arguing that the God of the Bible is, in fact, one and the same with the God of the philosophers. Today, in the absence of the metaphysical proofs, the ad hoc strategy of appealing to evidence for the existence of God seems unconvincing and miracles seem impossible to accept.
Secondly, in the classic tradition of Christian orthodoxy the existence of God is not presupposed by a kind of “leap of faith.” In the 19th century Kierkegaard was confronted with the rationalism of Hegel, who was operating on the assumption that Kant’s abandonment of classical metaphysics was inevitable given the unanswerableness of Hume’s critique of the proofs of God’s existence and other aspects of traditional metaphysics (such as realism, causation, etc.). In this situation philosophical naturalism was understood as “rational” and belief in God irrational. So Kierkegaard felt it necessary to make a “leap of faith” to God as his starting point in order to avoid atheism and naturalism. Thus we have the embrace of fiedeism.
In the twentieth century Karl Barth also assumed that rationalism equals naturalism and so he attempted to place Christian Theology on a purely Christological foundation that could substitute for the metaphysical foundations that, apparently, had evaporated like the morning mist on a sunny day. So he placed the doctrine of the Trinity in the place in his prolegomena that would have been occupied by the metaphysical proofs of God’s existence in Reformed scholasticism. On the conservative Reformed side of the spectrum, Cornelius Van Til argued that unless one makes God the presupposition of one’s thought one will eventually land in contradiction and despair and Francis Schaefer developed this line of apologetics in a very fruitful manner. (It is very true that any other starting point will land one in nihilism, but many postmodernists are not fazed by that fact - they embrace it!)
Several generations of evangelical theologians now have utilized one of these three approaches (fideism, Barthianism and presuppositionalism) in theological work. But I would argue that doing so has tended to separate us from our own reformed roots and cut us off from understanding our own tradition. I think we need to recover the metaphysics of classical, Nicene orthodoxy including the metaphysical proofs for God’s existence.
Third, the rejection of the proofs for God’s existence is not a neutral act, but an act of rebellion against the Creator. We are not talking here about a simple error in reasoning or an inability to follow a complex argument. We are talking about sin. We are confronting a willful refusal to acknowledge the truth that presents itself before the intellect and that results in a division within the self between one’s will and one’s intellect. Thomas showed the the person who understands the meaning of the word “God” cannot rationally deny God’s reality. When this happens, the self is divided against itself and it finds itself unable to think clearly. One becomes open to lies and deceit and one finds it impossible to be totally honest. This is a spiritually precarious position to be in because it means one is susceptible to being misled and deceived into accepting contradictory and destructive ideas. Yet, this is a sober and accurate description of much contemporary thought as seen daily on the internet.
It is crucial to understand that there exists in the world such a thing as ‘metaphysical wickedness’ - the rebellion of the mind against the truth. This is why the classical Christian tradition knew that it is important not only to confess that God exists, but also that confessing God’s existence is foundational to human rationality. Our ability to be rational and to reason properly depends on the existence of God for many reasons. In the next article we will continue to think about how the metaphysical proofs for Gods’ existence function and what implications they have for theology, morality and science.