In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky famously noted that if God does not exist, then all is permitted. If there is no Lawmaker, there can be no Law - none of any consequence, at least - and if no Law, then no Evil, and if no Evil, then nothing properly forbidden.
Worse, if no God, then no Good, either. Since nothing can be required, nothing can be obeyed. And no Plan and no Purpose as well. As atheist Richard Dawkins bluntly admits, “no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”1
Grim tidings for mankind, if so. For many (including Dawkins), though, this is not sad news, but a happy discovery signaling limitless liberties. No God means no boundaries and no restrictions, and that’s the way they want it, at least when it comes to their own personal indulgences.
All this to say that the answer to the God question dictates one of two trajectories leading in opposite directions based on who is in charge - the creature or the Creator, the Potter or the clay.
All the big questions, then - issues of origin, meaning, morality, and destiny - and all the secondary concerns, too - issues of sex, gender, liberty, equality, bodily rights, etc. - eventually come down to one. Are we our own, or do we belong to Someone else? If there is a God, then, to borrow from Lewis, we are the tenants and He is the Landlord. If there is no God, then all is clay and nothing but clay.
Thus, the God question is the first question whose answer lays the foundation for answers to all the others. That foundational question comes in two steps for modern people: Does God exist? If so, is He good? For Christianity to make sense in the face of the social pushback and the spirit of this age, both issues need to be addressed.
And on this question the culture, for the most part, has come to the wrong conclusion. Either there is no God, or the God they fashion for themselves is so tame or so benign he is irrelevant to the affairs of men. Which is exactly how they want it.
Our task as disciples is to tell the truth and do so with confidence, intelligence, and grace. In these next two issues of Solid Ground, I am going to help you with that task. I’ll begin with a simple, but profound principle.
The Simplest Strategy
Let me offer you, in a nutshell, what I think is the easiest, most powerful way, strategically, to make your case for God. I have been using it a long time in a variety of ways, though it really came together for me quite by accident when my eldest daughter, then about eight years old, asked me an important question.
“Papa,” Annabeth asked, “how do we know God is true?” She was already a Christian, baptized at six, but was now trying to connect the dots, not regarding the “What?” but regarding the “Why?” “Why God?” was her question.
What do you say to a youngster who already believes in God but is not sure why belief in God is defensible? That was my challenge. And nothing technical would do, not at her age.
I thought for a moment how I could say something meaningful in a simple way. Then an idea crystalized in my mind. “Annabeth,” I said, “the reason we believe God is true is that God is the best explanation for the way things are.” The minute I said it I realized I had summed up in a single sentence a major thrust of how I had approached defending Christianity for decades.
So much of my effort in making the case for God and Jesus and the Bible and even critical elements of Christian morality hinges on what I take to be the common-sense fit between what Christianity claims about the world and the way the world actually is.
In a way, it provides a simple but profound principle for our thoughtful engagement with a culture increasingly skeptical of Christian claims and hostile towards Christians and the Christ they follow.
You might call the principle the explanatory power of Christian theism; that is, the important details of the Christian worldview make good sense of what we actually discover the world to be like. It turns out that the picture of reality the Bible presents fits the world as we discover it and resonates with our deepest intuitions about origin, meaning, morality, and destiny.
This “fit” is the classical definition of truth, by the way.2 When a claim we make or belief we have matches the way the world actually is, then we say the claim or the belief is true. Aristotle put it plainly: Truth is when you say that it is, and it is, or when you say that it isn’t, and it isn’t. On the flip side, when one’s belief about reality does not match the world as it actually is, then we know the belief is false.
Note the advantage to this “best explanation” strategy. There’s no need to dismissively deny the possibility of other options. We can give fair consideration to the alternatives. We’re not offering the only explanation, just the best one, all things considered.
Our confidence is based on a point I have made before, but it’s worth repeating since it’s such a powerful concept: Reality is on our side. My point with Annabeth was that Christianity explains reality best, that the existence of God makes sense of features of the world that, without Him, would be unlikely in the extreme. Other worldview stories do not fare well by this standard because certain obvious features of the world simply do not fit into their narrative, putting them on a collision course with reality.
So fix this fact first in your mind: God is the best explanation for the way things are. That is your starting point to answering the question, “Why God?” Now, two applications of this principle, one amazingly simple to grasp (and, therefore, quite persuasive, I think), the other more complex but incredibly powerful largely because it leverages the problem of evil in our favor.
Beginning at the Beginning
I was once asked during an audience Q&A to give some compelling evidence for the existence of God. “Can I ask you a few questions to get us rolling?” I said to the challenger. He nodded. “First, do you think things exist? Is the material universe real?”
“Yes, of course,” he answered.
“Good. Second question: Have the things in the universe always existed. Is the universe eternal?”
“No,” he said. “The universe came into being at the Big Bang.”
“Okay, I’m with you.3 Now the final question: What caused the Big Bang?”
At this point he balked. “How do I know?” he said. “I’m no scientist.”
“Neither am I,” I admitted, “but there are really only two choices: something or no thing.4 What do you think? Do you think something outside the natural universe caused it to come into being, or do you think it simply popped into existence with no cause, for no reason?”
At this point, the skeptic who prides himself on his use of reason finds himself in a rational box. Both the law of excluded middle (it can’t be neither option) and the law of non-contradiction (it can’t be both) oblige him to choose one of the only two logical possibilities available.
To admit that something outside the natural, physical, time-bound universe is its cause would be to contradict his naturalistic atheism. Yet, what thoughtful person would opt for the alternative? Even if he thinks it possible the universe popped into existence, uncaused, out of no thing, it’s clearly not the odds-on favorite.
Imagine a man’s wife asking where the new Mercedes Benz SL parked in their garage came from. I doubt she’d be satisfied if he told her, “Honey, it didn’t come from anywhere. It just popped into existence out of nothing. No problem. That’s how the universe began, you know.” Even ordinary folk untutored in physics realize that’s not going to wash.
Reason dictates we opt for the most reasonable alternative, and the something-from-no-thing option is not it. Indeed, it’s worse than magic. In magic, a magician pulls a rabbit out of a hat. In this case, though, there’s no hat - and no magician. There’s just a rabbit (the universe, in our case) appearing out of nowhere.
You might recognize this line of thinking as the Kalam cosmological argument, an ancient defense of theism recently revitalized by philosopher William Lane Craig.5 If you haven’t read his books, let me give you the short course.
You can construct a logically tight syllogism to make the case, but that’s not really necessary for the average person appealing to a common-sense notion like this. Here’s the simplified version: A Big Bang needs a big Banger. I think that pretty much covers it. Every effect requires a cause adequate to explain it. Pretty obvious.
Ironically, the night I was working out the details of this point in the lobby of a large hotel in Poland, there was a huge bang in the reception area. The gabby crowd in the lounge was immediately struck silent, everyone wondering the same thing: What was that?
Of course, they knew what is was. It was a big bang. The real question in their minds was, “What caused that?” Did something fall over? Did a firecracker go off? Did someone get shot?6 I promise you one thing, though. No one in that hotel - regardless of religious or philosophic conviction - thought the explosion was uncaused. It never occurred to anyone that the bang banged itself.
Skeptics know this, too. Once at a dinner party a young man sitting across from me announced - somewhat belligerently - that he no longer believed in God. “It’s irrational,” he said. “There’s no evidence.”
In response, I raised my point about the Big Bang. “If you heard a knock on the front door over there across the room,” I said, “would you think the knock knocked itself, or would you conclude some one was doing the knocking and then get up and answer the door?”
He sniffed dismissively at my question, however, so I let the issue go. Half an hour later over desert, though, there was a loud knock on the front door (I’m not making this up). Startled, the atheist lifted his head in surprise. “Who’s that?” he blurted out.
I said, “No one.” The point was lost on him, of course. His next move, though, was telling: He got up and answered the door.
That night, this young, naive atheist had encountered reality. He knew a simple knock could not have knocked itself yet seemed completely willing to accept as reasonable that an entire universe simply popped into existence without rhyme, reason, or purpose.
Once Annabeth slammed the flat of her hand down on the table with a bang and said, “If I bang my hand down, then I am the one who banged it. So who banged the Big Bang?” She had nicely internalized the obvious point. Atheism has no resources to explain where the world came from. Christianity does because God is the best explanation for the way things are.
Evil, Our Ally
I’ll introduce the next reason for God with a question. What is the most frequently raised objection - and the most durable challenge - to the existence of the kind of good and powerful God Christians believe in? The answer: the problem of evil.
Here’s the twist, though. The existence of evil is psychologically daunting for theism, but it is not the rational problem most people think it is. Indeed, it’s an ally if you know how to leverage the problem of evil in your favor. The strategy depends for its force on two self-evident facts about the way the world is.
First, any thoughtful person, at any place on the planet, at any point in history, has known that something is terribly wrong - morally wrong - with the world. The thought “that ain’t right” - which is the basis for the complaint about evil and God - crosses our minds on a multitude of issues on a regular basis. Things aren’t just broken; they’re bad. They’re not the way they’re supposed to be.
Second, when we point the finger at the bad stuff, we aren’t simply saying we don’t like what’s happening or that we’d personally prefer things to be different. No. We mean we don’t like some things because we’re convinced they’re actually wrong, whether other people like them or not.
This second fact is the difference between moral relativism (“That’s not my thing”) and moral objectivism (“That ain’t right, regardless”). In other words, for all their protestations, most people are common-sense moral objectivists at heart. Everyone knows that some things are deeply bad in themselves. Count on that.
Now, here’s how to show that really bad stuff is really good evidence for God.7
First, ask your skeptical friend for his assessment of something clearly morally grotesque. Mention Auschwitz, or a recent massacre reported in the news, or any striking instance of cruelty, wickedness, or inhumanity to man. If the standard examples don’t move him, suggest homophobia, bigotry, intolerance, global warming - whatever pushes his personal moral hot button. Chances are, he’s already provided examples for you himself.
Next, ask, When you say these things are evil (or bad, wrong, wicked, ain’t right, whatever), are you talking about the actions, or are you talking about yourself - your own private likes and dislikes? Again, you’re zeroing in here on the difference between moral objectivism and moral relativism.
Virtually every time - if they don’t have their philosophical guard up, artificially defending their relativistic turf - they’re going to tell you the truth. They’re convinced the actions are evil, regardless of personal opinion or cultural consensus. They think the evil is objective (even if they don’t use that word) - thus the problem of evil facing theists. If morality were reduced to mere subjective preferences, there’d be no complaint. The problem of evil is only a problem if there is real evil out there in the world.
Now here is the final question. Where does the standard come from that your friend is using to label some things wicked or wrong or morally vile in themselves, regardless of personal opinion, regardless of cultural conventions? What transcendent standard allows him make a legitimate judgment that some things are really, truly, transcendently bad?
At very best, the naturalist might be able to account for mind-dependent personal-preference morality - relativism, in other words. But make-me-up morality simply will not do here. If evil is merely a matter of subjective opinion, there’s no objective problem. What, then, has the skeptic been complaining about all this time when he cites evil against God?
I think you see the point. Put in a playful way, it makes no sense to say things are not the way they’re s’posed to be, unless there is a way they’re s’posed to be, and there can’t be a way they’re s’posed to be, without a “S’poser.” Translation: It’s going to be very difficult to make sense of transcendent moral law without a transcendent moral law giver - God, in other words.
The atheist is not going to get objective values (things that have intrinsic worth - worth in themselves) and objective duties or obligations (“Thou shalts” and “Thou shalt nots”) in a world consisting only of matter in motion. It can’t be done. Therefore, atheism can’t even make sense of the problem of evil.
This, of course, is the moral argument for God, put formally: If there is no God, there is no objective morality. But there is objective morality (as evidenced by the problem of evil). Therefore, God exists.
Your friend has one of two choices at this point. One, he can cling to his relativism and drop his objection about evil in the world. Surrendering that complaint, though, is going to be hard for him to do because he knows too much. Two, he can make the smart choice by salvaging his common-sense complaint about evil at the expense of his atheism, since no materialistic scheme can account for immaterial moral obligations. What he can’t do is have it both ways if he’s intellectually honest.8
Don’t let your friend miss the main point. The reality of evil in the world does not help the atheist. It hurts him.9 Rather than being good evidence against God, evil in the world is one of the best arguments for God.
Here is the argument in a nutshell. The problem of evil is only a problem if evil is real. To say something is evil, though, is to make a moral judgment. Moral judgments require a moral standard - a moral law - and a moral law requires an author. If the standard is transcendent, then the law-giver must be, too.
There you go. If there’s a problem of evil (and there is), then God exists. He’s the best explanation for the way things are.
The Final Concern
You may not have noticed, but we’ve also answered another question without even trying.
The problem of evil doesn’t simply require perfect goodness in the abstract. It requires some One to be perfectly good. If there is Good (and there can’t be Evil without it), then there must be Someone perfectly good who embodies it.
Obligations are held between persons, and only a supreme Person can issue supreme commands. Without commands there can be neither compliance nor disobedience - no right or wrong for people, that is; no good or evil in human behavior. No sin, in other words. Yet human sin is precisely the problem at the bottom of the complaint about evil.
I realize we are now getting into uncomfortable territory, but there is no way around it. It is common these days to challenge the goodness of God since many don’t like the burden genuine goodness entails. Yet, if you’re following the thinking so far, if God is not perfectly Good, then nothing is good in any ultimate sense. It really is that simple.
The Good is grounded in God’s character, and obligations are grounded in commands that flow from His morally pure nature. It is the one alternative that makes sense of everything we’ve discovered so far about morality. All goodness finds its source in Him. There is no other answer.
A good God made the world a certain way, the way it’s supposed to be. Our fallen desires drive us towards a different end, but that’s been the difficulty from the start. God wants the good for us and we do not. The problem is with us, not God.
We cannot see into the future to know the consequences of our actions. God can. We do not know how things were meant to work, at least not completely. God does. With every command, He directs us towards wholeness, helping us be the way we’re supposed to be. We are the clay and He is the Potter. Only under His hand and under the protection of His laws can we be formed into something beautiful. As one has put it...
The law of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul.
The testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple.
The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart.
The commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes.
The fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever.
The judgments of the Lord are true; they are righteous altogether.
They are more desirable than gold, yes, than much fine gold.
Sweeter also than honey, and the drippings of the honeycomb.
Moreover, by them Your servant is warned; in keeping them there is great reward.10
Why God? First, because there’s no way to make sense of the entire world coming into being without a Being outside this world causing it to happen. The alternative is everything from no thing, which is just plain silly.
Second, if there is no God, then there is no good and no evil either, and we’re back to Dostoevsky and Dawkins again - all permitted, nothing required; no evil, no good; all blind, all pitiless, all indifferent. Without the Potter, everything is clay, and nothing but clay. Deep inside, though, each of us knows better.
There are other reasons we can be confident in God. Paul says He has made Himself evident both within - something we experience - and without - something we see (Rom. 1:19-20). Those two things will be the subject of the next Solid Ground.