How do I know that God really exists?
I asked Him this once while praying, and He actually spoke to me and asked, “Who is it, exactly, that you’re talking to?” Nice to know He has a sense of humor, I guess.
That’s really a good answer, though. If you are already a Christian, I suppose that you have experiences with God, times when you asked for something and got a pointed answer, or moments during which the universe made complete sense. Those are real experiences, are they not? You should compare notes with other Christians, because lots of us have those experiences.
Millions of us have them, in fact, from every nation, every culture, and every time period. The common experiences of believers are a good starting place. You can pick up letters written by Church Fathers in the 2nd century AD and find descriptions of experiences just like yours. You can read testimonials from believers in Brazil, Burundi, or Bangladesh that are just like yours. Common experiences are a sound basis for believing.
Also, it is common for human beings to look at the world around them, note the complexity, beauty, vastness, and power of it, and say “This could not have happened by accident. There must be someone greater who started all this.” And no, modern science does not begin to dismiss such observations. Just describing the phenomena in smaller and smaller particulars does not erase the evidence of intelligence, purpose, artistic greatness, and love from the cosmos.
Because of these, some philosophers call belief in God “properly basic.” That’s philosopher-speak for those things that we all accept because it would be silly not to, even though they can’t be proved formally. It is properly basic, for example, to believe that what you see and feel has meaningful reference to what is real. It is properly basic to believe that the universe was not created 5 minutes ago with the deceptive appearance of age. It is properly basic to believe that you have not lived your entire life in The Matrix. None of these things can be proved, but we all accept them as obvious, and even those who go around questioning them live as though they were true. Because of the common experience of God and the natural, human response to the beauty of creation, believing in the existence of God is like those things.
That’s why I became a Christian, in fact. I can talk all day about fancy arguments, and I think they’re sound, but in actual fact I became a Christian because God showed up in real time and it would have been dishonest for me to pretend that He did not.
If you do not have such experiences with God, allow me to suggest that you ask Him to give you some. He’s not all that unapproachable. If you wonder whether He’s actually willing to do that, please take my word for it that He is. It does not matter whether you are a believer or not; God will reveal Himself to anybody who asks.
It does matter, however, that you be willing to accept what happens next without making rationalizations about it. If Jesus shows up in your dreams, say, and offers you something, don’t dismiss it as soon as you wake up.
And it also matters, once you have some experiences, that you compare notes with other, Christian believers, and that you spend a great deal of time reading the Bible so you can understand what you experienced. The world is full of deceptive things, and nobody can be a Christian alone. Once I had experienced God personally, I dove into Christian fellowship, and didn’t come up for air for several years. Getting to know God is like getting to know anybody else; the more time you spend with them, the better you’ll know them. Find people whom you can trust, who have been serving faithfully for decades and not promoting themselves.
In the meantime, there are formal arguments for God’s existence as well, and they are strong enough to convince the unbiased. Any atheist who tells you that you believe in God “without the slightest bit of evidence” is playing a semantic game with you. I’ve read 2 or 3 dozen formal proofs of the existence of God, and several of them are evidence-based. Atheists may not accept the evidence as undeniable proof, but that’s a different thing; evidence is evidence, whether you’re convinced by it or not.
One example of a formal argument based on evidence would be the updated version of the Kalam Cosmological Argument used by Dr. Frank Turek and Prof. William Lane Craig in their public talks. The argument goes something like this:
* Everything that began to exist must have a cause.
* The universe began to exist.
* Therefore the universe must have a cause.
Both Turek and Craig use Big Bang cosmology to demonstrate that the universe had a beginning. Thus, all the evidence demonstrating that the Big Bang occurred is evidence for the existence of God. Whether the atheist finds the evidence convincing or not is completely beside the point; it is simply a fact that the argument rests on evidence. So anybody saying that you believe in God “without any evidence” is saying something that is plainly false.
I am not going to delve deeper into the philosophical arguments for the existence of God in this brief post. My core argument is simply that I’ve met Him, and encountered Him in real experience thousands of times over the past 40 years. I could no more disbelieve in God than I could disbelieve in my own mother (who has been dead since 1988, so, like God, she is incorporeal.) I need no other argument to claim that my behaving as though God were a fact is completely rational.
If you want to learn more about arguments for the existence of God, let me suggest a few places to start:
Turek and Geisler, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist, Crossway Books, 2004. Turek and Geisler include accessible versions of the horizontal cosmological argument, the teleological argument, and the moral argument for the existence of God. Visit Impact Apologetics to get it.
Lewis, CS, Mere Christianity. The first portion of the book describes the moral argument for the existence of God in great detail, cast toward a radio audience so it is very easy to follow. Here’s just one of dozens of possible editions you could buy.
Kreeft, Peter, “Twenty Arguments for the Existence of God,” http://www.peterkreeft.com/topics-more/20_arguments-gods-existence.htm. Kreeft is a leading Catholic apologist and teaches philosophy at Boston College. His work may not be aimed at common audiences, but his style is clear and simple so he is approachable.
There are also tons of videos and web sites examining the details of these and other arguments. You can literally make a career of studying them. For our purpose here, though, it’s enough to say that you’re in the stream with millions of others who have had experiences just like yours, and that’s more than enough proof that we’re not making stuff up.
If you care: my own favorite arguments, the ones that I think are the strongest, are what are called vertical cosmological arguments. St. Thomas Aquinas posited two such arguments in his famous “Five Ways.” The Kalam, used by Turek and Craig because it is simple and science-based, is a horizontal cosmological argument and is not as strong in my humble opinion.
The difference is this: a horizontal argument stays at the level of physical occurrences and never leaves it. It moves backwards in time to find the first in an unbroken series of causes: A struck B, which in turn bumped into C, which caused D to vibrate, etc. Think of a Mousetrap game and you’ll get the idea.
A vertical argument is not interested in that notion of “cause.” Instead, it travels up the chain of reasons to determine what greater thing requires or enables lesser things to be as they are. I am buying eggs because I need to eat. I need to eat in order to live. I need to live in order to fulfill my essential nature. I need to fulfill my essential nature because God commanded that I do so. And so on.
If you want to read good stuff about Aquinas’ Five Ways, I recommend books by Edward Feser. His blog can be found here, and you can search there for articles discussing various arguments. Warning: Feser is a philosopher’s philosopher, and while he writes exceptionally well, he does not condescend to converse with mere mortals. Second warning: the blog has no search engine, so you have to use Google or Bing and type “Feser Aquinas” or something like that.
One last thing: I run into people in Pentecostal settings from time to time who take ordinary stuff and pretend that it’s something miraculous. These folks very badly want to have experienced a miracle, so they go out of their way to imagine that they have. No, not all Pentecostals do that, nor even most; but I’ve encountered enough of them to make it worthwhile to mention.
Please don’t do that. God does plenty of things that are real so you don’t have to make stuff up; and it’s pretty obvious to the casual observer when you’re stretching things. It’s been my experience that when God REALLY shows up, nobody present has the slightest doubt that it’s Him. He’s pretty impressive.
But we humans have this tendency to want to imagine that He’s done something; I think it’s like bragging about which rock star’s hand you shook. We’re weak that way.