Is God Real – How Can Anyone Really Know?
Always be ready to give an answer to everyone who asks you a reason concerning the hope that is in you. 1 Peter 3:15
How can we know that God is real? This page is the first of six parts based on an excellent series my church is running, called "The God Questions". The first question is the most fundamental — "Is God Real?"
This series is based on the book ‘The God Questions: Exploring Life’s Great Questions About God.’ by Hal Seed and Dan Grider. Some of the study questions are drawn from the Study Guide in the back of that book.
The six questions are:
- Is God Real?
- Is the Bible True?
- Do all Roads Lead to Heaven?
- How Can a Good God Allow Suffering?
- Which is Right: Evolution or Creation?
- What Happens When I Die?
NOTICE: This page is currently in draft form. I'll fix it up a lot more later on this week, editing it and adding more...
You can hear and download the sermons in .mp3 format, and the PDF study outlines for the series, from Springwood Baptist Church using the link below. They are listed in reverse order, from the latest/most recent at the top of the page, and the first in the series at the end of the page.
CREDIT: Much of this web page is based on the first sermon of the series, "Is God Real?" by Rev. Phil Waugh, with some of my own ideas thrown in.
Introduction to Apologetics
(From the PDF study guide.) GETTING STARTED: If someone asked you the question, “How do you know that God is real?” or made a comment about your ‘imaginary friend’, how would you respond? Would you bother responding? How confident do you feel about responding to questions about your faith?
In 1 Peter 3:15, we read that we should “Always be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you.” The word that Peter uses as ‘defence’ is the Greek word apologia, from which we get the English word ‘apology’. But, in this case, it is something that is similar to a legal defence, “a well-reasoned reply; a thought-out response to adequately address the issue(s) that is raised.” It is important that we learn to defend our faith, especially when people question whether our faith is rational and reasonable. The practice of defending our faith is called Christian apologetics:
“In Acts 7, Stephen makes a defence before his accusers in Jerusalem. And several times in the book of Acts, Paul sets out a defence before his accusers, not only for his actions as he travelled the world preaching the gospel, but also a defence for the gospel itself. He wanted people to see the reasonableness for faith in Christ.”
This series is designed to provide us with some ways to respond to the six questions. You can read more about Christian Apologetics here at christianitytoday.com.
For anyone exploring the possibility of whether the Christian faith is true (or otherwise), these are the big questions to be considered. For new (or even long-term) Christians, it can also be very good to think about them, to strengthen and deepen your faith.
And also, as a long-term Christian, (and especially one who's studying at Bible College), it's a great idea to have solid answers to these questions — and to be able to use them to explain to others the reasoning behind my own faith:
Always be ready to give an answer to everyone who asks you a reason concerning the hope that is in you.
With this aim in mind, I'm especially interested in learning all I can about this subject of apologetics.
Faith Versus Reason
Many people imagine that in the modern world there are two kinds of people: people of faith, and people of reason. As if these two are mutually exclusive. That is, there's an idea out there (and which is very common) that you can't be both: You have to be either 1. a person who believes in things because of faith, because they want to, and with no logical basis for that faith; or, 2. a person who uses reason and logic and is "scientific", and whose world view is based on things that can be proven and verified and known for sure.
This was a large issue for me personally, since I grew up with this idea — that you had to be one or the other. And that intelligent (meaning logical and reasonable) people were those who chose science over God.
The sermon gives a good explanation of how this is an illusion — and how it's very possible to be both a person of faith and a person of logic/reason. You can be both. You can be a person of faith, and also love science. You don't have to be one person or another.
Scientists Who Are Also Christians
There are a huge number of scientists who are also Bible-believing Christians. This is very much downplayed in modern society, and especially by the secular mass media.
Some of the greatest thinkers within our Western scientific tradition have been people of faith. The book "Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica" by Isaac Newton is very often attributed as the most famous scientific work of all time.
I have an honours degree in Physics and Astronomy/Astrophysics. Much of what is now called "Classical Mechanics" is based on Newton's work. It was a large component of what we learned. Yet in my entire Physics degree, there was never even one mention that the introduction to Newton's famous work contains this kind of thing:
This most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being. And if the fixed stars are the centres of other like systems, these, being formed by the like wise counsel, must be all subject to the dominion of One; especially since the light of the fixed stars is of the same nature with the light of the sun, and from every system light passes into all the other systems: and lest the systems of the fixed stars should, by their gravity, fall on each other mutually, he hath placed those systems at immense distances one from another.
This Being governs all things, not as the soul of the world, but as Lord over all; and on account of his dominion he is wont to be called Lord God παντοκράτωρ, or Universal Ruler.
And from his true dominion it follows that the true God is a living, intelligent, and powerful Being; and, from his other perfections, that he is supreme, or most perfect. He is eternal and infinite, omnipotent and omniscient; that is, his duration reaches from eternity to eternity; his presence from infinity to infinity; he governs all things, and knows all things that are or can be done.
Newton's faith in his God was his inspiration to study the world in the way that he did.
Galileo Galilei was the first person to use a telescope to show that the Earth is not the centre of the universe. He made detailed observations of things like the motion of the moons of Jupiter, which clearly revolved around Jupiter (and not the Earth). This was concrete evidence that not everything in the universe revolved around the Earth.
The common story that we hear about Galileo is that the "evil, vile" Catholic Church persecuted him to near death for this heresy. However, this story is just that — a story. In fact, it's a complete fabrication. What actually happened is that Galileo published his first work with a dedication to the Pope, and claimed money from the Pope to publish it. But then, his fellow scientists were offended by his work. These people were not "the church". They were the academics of the universities of Europe. They hated Galileo, because his model of the solar system contradicted what they taught. And they wanted to shut him up.
So they went to the church, and appealed for the church to turn against him. But (and again in contradiction to the popular Christ-vs-science version of his life), Galileo was a deeply committed Christian, and remained so till his death.
What Can We Really Prove, 100% for Sure?
The sermon later discusses the idea that there are very few things that can truly be proven. For example, it's impossible to prove that you even exist. Let's elaborate further on this for a minute...
Other than the vague idea that the consciousness/reality that you're experiencing right now is in fact something that you are, in some sense, experiencing right now — what else can we really say about your experience of that reality, 100% for sure? The answer is not much at all. It's impossible to even prove that you're awake right now, as you're reading this page — and not reading it in a dream, and any second you're about to wake up in bed to your alarm clock, on a Monday morning.
Most things like this, which people assume to be proven facts, are not 100% certain at all. Rather, we accept them on the basis of faith. I have faith that I'm awake as I'm writing this web page right now. I have faith that when I go to the bank tomorrow, my money will still be there (and the New York stock market didn't crash overnight, taking the Australian banking system down with it before I could get my money out).
This "faith" means assuming something will be a certain way because the balance of probabilities very strongly implies it. But it's not something we can truly know for sure.
So God can be seen like this too. The sermon goes on to discuss the balance of probabilities of things as complex as different aspects of creation (or just the natural world, if you don't like the word "creation") possibly just coming into existence by random chance.
Quantum physics discovered this idea in the early part of the last century. Especially in the early days, many scientists were extremely uncomfortable with this idea. Even Albert Einstein himself was never comfortable with quantum mechanics, and famously said that "God does not play dice [with the universe]". Meaning that he didn't accept the idea that things only existed on the basis of probabilities.
Yet the experimental data and the mathematical scientific theory both support the reality of quantum mechanics — and that many things which were previously thought of as precisely knowable were in fact only knowable to within certain probabilities. Not only that, but in quantum mechanics, the nature of things is not precisely defined independently of them being observed. Many of these strange things about quantum mechanics became known as "quantum weirdness" because they were so counter-intuitive to the clockwork-like purely mechanical worldview of classical physics. I'll do another whole web page about quantum mechanics in future... But for now, to summarise, even according to science it's impossible to know anything much at all 100% for certain.
I'll fill in more of the details later, but the sermon then goes on to describe reasons why it's very highly extremely probable that God does exist. It's also very highly extremely probable that you're a human being (and not, for example, an insane turtle who believes they're a human).
Another way to see this question of God's existence (which isn't in the sermon) is that you can prove that God exists quite easily, just by using a convenient definition of what the word "God" means. For example, use the word "God" to mean the net set of forces/events/laws/systems which caused your reality as you experience it right now to exist. Seen in this way, God exists (by definition) as much as the reality that you're experiencing right now exists.
Some people don't like this type of very minimal proof that God exists, because it doesn't say very much about God. It doesn't say, for example, that God has "consciousness" or "intelligence". Yet what do consciousness and intelligence mean anyway?
This idea is expanded on below, by considering an example from everyday life — our own existence as humans.
If God Doesn't Exist, Why Stop There?
Consider an atheist who believes that nothing exists apart from things which have been experimentally verified by "science". Such as atoms, molecules, electricity, etc. Usually along with this, it's also implied that nothing "supernatural" exists. (Which itself is rather arrogant, if you think about it — as it also implies that current experimentally-verified human knowledge is capable of explaining everything that can possibly exist. And that anything outside the bounds of current human understanding, i.e. the supernatural, must therefore not exist.)
Along with this is also usually the implication that there is no such thing as a "soul" or a "spirit", and that what we perceive to be consciousness is just a result of chemical and electrical interactions in our brain (and other parts of our physical body).
If we assume all the above to be true, then why do we even say there is such thing as a "human being"? What even is a "human"? Other than a collection of atoms (and electric and magnetic fields, etc.), joined together by chemical bonds, and other scientific laws of nature. If these things are the only things that can possibly exist, then what is the point in saying that people exist?
Obviously, the answer is that a "person" is a collective term for the combination of all these individual parts (and cells and chemical reactions and the other aspects of our physiology). And it's useful in everyday life to have a practical collective term for all these individual, inter-related parts that make up a person.
So the same thing could be said about God. It could just as easily be said that it's useful to have a practical collective term (e.g. "God") for the combination of individual forces and other phenomema that are in control of what's happening in the universe.
Just as a person can be considered to exist as a single distinct entity, and yet also contain many trillions of much smaller but still distinct, individual organisms within them — God can also be thought of this way:
Behold, to Yahweh your God belongs heaven and the heaven of heavens, the earth, with all that is therein.
But is that all there is to it?
At this point, most people (perhaps after some thought) would go on from there to point out the big, "blindingly obvious" difference between people and God. And say that we can see, hear, and feel a person — but we can't see, hear, or feel God.
But there's a subtle trick happening here, a sleight of hand, that's been missed out entirely in that type of argument.
When people say "we can't see God", what aspect of God are they referring to?
When people say "we can see people", what aspect of people are they referring to?
Really think about this for a minute.
We can see the physical aspects of a person. We can see their body. If we use scientific instruments, we can also see otherwise invisible things about their physiology (like their white blood cell count, or whatever). We can even scan the brain for electrical activity. But there's no way (either with our own senses or with scientific instruments) we can see their actual consciousness itself.
Now consider God. We can in fact easily detect (and literally see) very many things about God. Like the physical universe all around us, which is part of God. And (just like with people) we can perform scientific tests and learn more about the universe, and the reality which exists around us and outside us. We can see God's Word (the Bible). We can hear God's word when read out aloud, and we can hear all around us the sounds made by God's creation (a.k.a. the universe), which is part of God. We can even perceive (feel) things like "love", which the Bible tells us are part of God:
Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God, and knows God. He who doesn't love doesn't know God, for God is love.
Something that we can't see directly (not with our eyes, nor with scientific instruments) is the consciousness of God. Just like with people.
So if we choose to say that "God does not exist" because "God" is just a collection of individual and separate phenomena, and not a "being" as such, and we can't actually see God's consciousness — then we should also say that people (and many other things which contain smaller individual parts) do not exist either, because they are just a collection of individual and separate phenomena, and not a "being" as such, and we can't actually see human consciousness.
Most people find it quite easy to imagine that other people do exist — because we can directly experience our own consciousness, and we then imagine that the moving objects we see which look like us (i.e. other humans) also have similar consciousness. But we can't prove that any of these things (outside our own immediate consciousness) do actually exist. We just assume they exist (a.k.a. have faith that they exist), because it's logical, and it seems like the sane thing to do.
Some people find it harder to imagine that God exists — perhaps because they imagine that for God to have a human-like consciousness then he would have to look like a human. Or speak to them in English (or whatever human language you speak), like a human. Or somehow just be "more" than the majesty of all of creation (a.k.a the universe) that is directly observable all around us, plus the other invisible aspects of that which we acknowledge to exist, plus other unknown and unknowable things (like God's consciousness, which is invisible, just like human consciousness is), many of which which we cannot even begin to imagine.
But what else would God be, other than the kinds of things in the sentence above? If an atheist can accept that humans have "consciousness", and believe it to be nothing more than an unobservable side effect of observable electrical and chemical activity within a collection of matter that weighs a few tens of kilograms — then how could a vast, entire universe, which is both unimaginably more complex and unimaginably more organised (according to the laws of physics) than the human mind, not also have an unobservable collective apsect to its observeable existence, that could similarly be called "consciousness"?
Back To What's In The Sermon
More to follow later...