The simplest way I have ever found to explain my reasons for believing in God is this: God is the best explanation for the way things are. That statement sums up in one sentence my basic approach to 45 years of making a case for God’s existence and for the truth of Christianity.
In the last issue of Solid Ground, I talked with you about two specific ways that idea played out for me. First, I argued that the existence of God is the best explanation for the existence of the universe—why something is here rather than nothing. Second, I argued that the existence of God is the best explanation for our deeply embedded commitment to objective Morality,1 our understanding that the world is not the way it’s supposed to be—and our clear sense that we are not the way we are supposed to be either.
Atheism, on the other hand, explains nothing. It is the ultimate non-explanation, “explaining” by denying that explanations exist.
“Why is there something rather than nothing?” No reason. “What caused everything?” Nothing. “What accounts for Morality?” There is no Morality to account for. “Why is there Evil in the world?” There is no real Evil in the world since there is no real Morality. “What is wrong with the world?” Nothing. It just is. “How do we fix the world?” We can’t fix what’s not broken. We can only make it more tolerable to our personal tastes.
I realize I’ve painted a rather dark picture of the atheist’s situation, but it is true to their view. 20th century British philosopher and atheist, Bertrand Russell, put it candidly:
That man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast heat death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins—all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy that rejects them can hope to stand.2
Dark? Yes. Painfully honest? Indeed. Accurate? Completely. On a materialistic view of the universe, things just are. Nothing more. No explanation for anything important. No purpose for anything dear. Rather, universal stillness. Nothing-ism. Naught to build on other than Russell’s “firm foundation of unyielding despair.”3
We can do better.
Non-explanations to vital concerns will not do when good explanations are at hand. And that is what we have. I have given two substantial reasons to believe in God: the origin of the universe and the grounding of Morality. Here are two more—first, the dazzling design at every level of the universe, and second, the “fit” between the biblical view of reality and the existential dilemma of the human condition. First, design.
Let me start with a question: How would we know if there is intelligent life in other parts of the universe? Scientists know the answer. They would look for something coming from another world that was not produced by natural causes. And they are looking—or listening, rather. The project is called SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.
SETI’s basic principle for recognizing the existence of intelligent life beyond the Earth was showcased years back in a fascinating film called Contact. In the movie, agnostic SETI astronomer, Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster), scrutinizes radio signals from outer space, “waiting for E.T. to call.”
One night he does, with a series of audio pulses counting out each prime number—integers divisible only by themselves and the number 1—from 2 to 101. It was a complex series of 26 numbers conforming perfectly to a specific external code—what scientists call “specified complexity”—a clear sign of intelligence. Indeed, the pulse had sequenced through only the first four primes—2, 3, 5, and 7—before Ellie said, “There’s no way that’s a natural phenomenon.”
But there was more. The signal was coupled with a second transmission, the image and audio of Adolf Hitler presiding over the 1936 Olympics. It was the first TV broadcast strong enough to drift into outer space 52 years earlier, handily returned to sender from the star system Vega, 26 light years away. Interlaced within the TV signal frames was another surprise: encrypted pages of text that when decoded revealed detailed plans for building a one-person galactic transport. The blueprint, they said, was “the jackpot.”
Ellie—and all her previous naysayers—is now completely convinced of the existence of intelligent extraterrestrials based on incontrovertible evidence—a sophisticated code revealing a detailed blueprint providing instructions to build an unimaginably complex machine.
Curiously, though, Ellie is unconvinced of God’s existence. Why? “As a scientist I rely on empirical evidence,” she tells her love interest, Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey), who prefers religious experience over reason. “And in that matter, I don’t believe there is data either way.” Why should she believe that God created everything then left us no evidence, she argues. “I need proof,” she says simply.
Joss has nothing to offer other than his “you’ve-got-to-have-faith” bromides. We can offer a better solution, though—a simple one right in front of Ellie’s and Palmer’s eyes, but one that hadn’t occurred to the writers, apparently. Had Ellie applied the same rules to the question of God that she had to the question of E.T.s, she would have had her evidence—in spades.
Think about it. Ellie Arroway finds a blueprint for a spaceship and properly infers intelligence as its source. Yet every single cell in her body carries within it a code—embedded in the DNA double helix—of a detailed blueprint vastly more complex than the one for her galactic transport.
Nowadays even third graders know where code like this comes from. It comes from programmers. It is designed by intelligence. So here’s the question: Who wrote the code? Who programed Ellie Arroway’s DNA with tens of thousands of pages of information using three billion base pair “words”4 of assembly instructions? Indeed, who programmed the DNA of every other one of the more than five billion species estimated to have lived on planet Earth?
Ellie asked for evidence. Here it is. The evidence—proof, if you will—for the existence of God is exactly the same kind of evidence that Ellie took as proof for the existence of extraterrestrials—a sophisticated code revealing a detailed blueprint providing instructions to build an unimaginably complex machine.5 To quote Ellie, “There’s no way that’s a natural phenomenon.”
Right. The human genome is no accident. Rather, it is a detailed plan carefully laid out by an intelligent mind.6 Regarding E.T.s, Arroway has the evidence she needs: a blueprint of a spaceship. Regarding God, she also has the evidence she needs: a blueprint of a human body.
And remember, computer code is binary—zeros and ones. DNA is a four-character digital code, making it much more sophisticated and much more powerful. Note biochemist Michael Denton:
The capacity of DNA to store information vastly exceeds that of any other known system; it is so efficient that all the information needed to specify an organism as complex as man weighs less than a few thousand millionths of a gram. The information necessary to specify the design of all the species of organisms which have ever existed on the planet...could be held in a teaspoon and there would still be room left for all the information in every book ever written.7
And DNA is just the tip of the design iceberg. Signs of intelligence—God’s fingerprints, as it were—are everywhere in the natural world, with countless examples of design chronicled in scores of works—books, DVDs, etc.—authored by believers and nonbelievers alike.
There’s the remarkable positioning of our planet in just the right place in our solar system—what even secular scientists call the “Goldilocks Zone”8—with just the right size; just the right seasons dictated by just the right tilt of Earth’s axis; just the right magnetic field with just the right intensity; just the right-sized moon creating just the right tides and just the right continental drift; just the right ratio of oxygen to nitrogen; just the right ratios of carbon dioxide to water vapor—and on and on and on.
There’s the incredibly fine-tuned constants of physics that dictate the precise constitution of our physical universe—the force of gravity, the strong and weak nuclear forces, the initial entropy of the universe, the cosmological constant, the proton-neutron mass difference, the expansion rate of the universe, and on and on—with a miniscule change in of any one of them resulting in a universe completely unfit for life anywhere. It’s what scientists now call the “rare Earth” hypothesis.9
There’s the discovery that every living cell is chock full of microscopic nanomachines made of molecules that are irreducibly complex—alter or remove one part and the entire machine breaks down—meaning they could not have been constructed by a step-by-step evolutionary process. It’s an unmistakable evidence of design that even Darwin admitted would falsify his theory:
There’s the stunning ability of reptiles (sea turtles), fish (salmon), mammals (whales), and insects (monarch butterflies)—to name just a few—to navigate to precise locations on the globe by tuning in to the Earth’s magnetic field.12 It’s unthinkable in the extreme that the same incredibly sophisticated virtual GPS system would independently evolve by accident in creatures far removed from each other on the evolutionary tree of life.
These design features (and there are many more) are so universally acknowledged, they prompted even anti-Christian astronomer Fred Hoyle to quip, “A super-intellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology.”13 They were also instrumental in convincing one of the 20th century’s most vocal philosophical atheists, Antony Flew, to embrace belief in God.14 He simply had no other choice but to, as he put it, “follow the evidence wherever it may lead.”15
Clearly, God’s “fingerprints” are everywhere for those who are willing to look. He has not only left His mark on the world, though. He has also left His mark on man.
Our Restless Souls
Augustine of Hippo most famously described the restlessness of the human soul and also suggested its only proper place of repose. “You have made us for yourself, O Lord,” he wrote in his Confessions, “and our hearts are restless until they can find rest in You.”
I think it is safe to say that this restlessness, this sense of longing, this ineffable yearning to be filled—or maybe yearning to be fixed—is a universal human affliction, a malady that has nothing to do with our natural appetites, since satisfying them never sates the hunger of our hearts. This ache of the soul can be muted by other distractions, but it can never be entirely silenced.
Two facts of the human condition lie at the heart of our inescapable sense of longing. One is that we are broken. The second is, it hasn’t always been this way. There remains a remnant of former beauty the brokenness cannot efface.
As to being broken, we all know this. We face our own failures every day. But it’s worse than that, isn’t it? Our brokenness is moral. As I have written elsewhere:
We are not simply malfunctioning. We are not machines that need to be fixed. We are transgressors who need to be forgiven. We have not merely “made mistakes,” like getting our sums wrong when balancing accounts. We have sinned. And with sin comes guilt. And with guilt comes punishment.16
Further, we know there is a place from which we have fallen. “What else does this craving, and this helplessness proclaim,” wrote Blaise Pascal, the French mathematician and religious philosopher, “but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace?”17
We know it is not enough for us simply to be. Something has gone missing that must be replaced. We feel a “sweet pain...a primal memory deep in our souls reminding us of the way the world started—good, wonderful, whole, complete.”18
We were made for something better, and we scrap and scrape to climb back up, to return to the heights. That struggle is central to just about every film we have ever seen and every story we have ever read. The exceptions, of course, are the dark, nihilistic yarns, the dystopian tales that tell us we are nothing.
Note the conflicting visions—the vision buried deep in our humanity, and the contrary vision flowing from the atheistic, nothing-ism view.
Atheism, of course, denies the guilt. It must. Without Good, there is no Bad. It also denies the beauty. Again, it must. If no God, no guided design, only biological accidents, physical parts stuck together without reason or purpose—cosmic junk. Man is nothing and his life means nothing. Atheism leaves us, once again, with naught.
No, our true longing is a hunger that atheism simply cannot satisfy, a thirst it cannot quench. Holly Ordway was an atheist who watched her soul suffer injury, corrupted by a belief that did not fit reality:
My atheism was eating into my heart like acid...I could not have explained the source of my own rationality, nor of my conviction that there were such things as truth, beauty, and goodness. My worldview remained satisfying to me only insofar as I refrained from asking the really tough questions.19
Ordway was not drawn to God initially because of DNA, irreducible complexity, or the finely-tuned constants of the universe. Rather, she first saw God in John Keats, John Donne, and Gerard Manly Hopkins. In short, she was alerted to God by beauty.
As an atheist, she had been feasting on despair for years, and she was starving. “However satisfied I declared myself intellectually...atheism...was a terrible place to live,” she realized. “It was the winter of my soul.”20
The thaw began when, as a newly minted college professor, Ordway reread the canonical poets of English literature and for the first time realized that the soul-satisfying beauty of their verse flowed naturally and natively from their Christian view of the world—God’s world:
I sensed something deeper in the poems I was reading. I could feel power thrumming in the lines of the poems, an electricity of meaning, drawing from some source beyond my reach.21
The world of Hopkins, Keats, and Donne was a world where transcendent beauty made sense, where longing and hunger could be satisfied, where rising up from the fall was possible—a world where there was hope. Inside her, something moved—“My heart in hiding/Stirred...,” “...hope, wish day come...” (Hopkins).
A realistic hope, though, or empty wish? C.S. Lewis answers: “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”22
This other world was the one Ordway hungered for. This was the understanding that made sense of the actual world she lived in. But there was also a dark side to her discovery.
Our Guilty Selves
The understanding of reality that made sense of beauty and meaning and hope also made sense of this world’s brokenness—both completely unintelligible in Holly Ordway’s atheism. The disturbing part was this: The brokenness that was real was also moral—and personal. “I considered myself a ’good person,’” she wrote, “but in my heart I was afraid to be judged on the real self behind my outward image.”23 She was guilty, and she knew it.
Years back I lectured to a capacity crowd at the University of California at Berkeley. I made the case against moral relativism simply by pointing out how frequently we encounter—and ultimately violate—genuine, deep Morality. It happens every day of our lives. This discovery, I noted to the audience, has explanatory power since it accounts for the personal feelings of guilt each of us experiences. We feel guilty because we are guilty.
That, of course, is the problem. We know we’re beautiful, but we also know we’re broken. That’s undeniable reality. Yet atheism gives us no reason to believe either of these things. It cannot account for our wonder and it cannot repair our brokenness. God alone gives the remedy. “The answer to guilt is not denial,” I told the students at Berkeley. “The answer to guilt is forgiveness.”
I have told that story many times to audiences, and every time I say those words something moves inside me. Forgiveness. Mercy. Repair. Restoration. Rebirth. New life. Hope. This is what our souls long for.
French philosopher Guillaume Bignon found his own naturalistic atheism being challenged as he encountered Christ in the New Testament.24 Nevertheless, the cross confused him. “Why did Jesus have to die?” he asked over and over again as he worked through the historical accounts of Jesus’ life. It made no sense to him.
Then something completely unexpected happened. “God reactivated my conscience,” he told me. “That was not a pleasant experience. I was physically crippled by guilt, not knowing what to do about it.”
Suddenly it dawned on him, “That’s why Jesus had to die. Because of me. Because of my guilt.” He immediately surrendered all his brokenness to the only One who could repair it, giving all his guilt to the only One who could forgive. When he did, “The feelings of guilt just evaporated.”
Atheism cannot do this. It cannot explain the beauty and wonder of being human. And it has no answer to human brokenness. It cannot provide the consolation of true forgiveness. Only God in Christ can solve the crisis in our hearts. It is the road home. Pascal again:
This [craving is what man] tries in vain to fill with everything around him...though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object—in other words, by God himself.25
Because our souls bear God’s own image, we are beautiful. Because we have rebelled against the God who gave us our beauty, we are fallen, guilty, lost. We cry out.
Here is our remedy, stated simply in a Christmas card I received from a friend: “The birth of Christ...invites us to believe that the cries of a broken world have actually been heard—a Savior was born.”26
Where atheism fails, Christianity succeeds. It’s the best explanation for the way things are.