Saturday, July 09, 2022

Wesleyan philosophy 3 -- What about God?

The third installment

If philosophy involves “meta-thinking,” thinking about thinking, then we are not surprised that there are a number of areas of philosophy that are the “philosophy of” some other discipline. There is a philosophy of history and philosophy of art. There is a philosophy of science. From a Christian perspective, the most important of these is surely the philosophy of religion.

What is the relationship between faith and reason?

When I think of the philosophy of religion, I especially think of three questions. I have already weighed in on the first one, namely, “What is the relationship between faith and reason?” While there are those who see faith as virtually provable and those who see it as virtually irrational, it seems to me that Wesley and Wesleyans have usually seen faith as reasonable although not necessarily “provable” from a human standpoint.

It seems to me that, historically, Wesleyans have not shied away from arguments for the existence of God, even if argument is not the heart of faith. I do think that, in recent decades, there has been somewhat of a move away from apologetics in some Wesleyan circles. True, no amount of argument brings a person to Christ. The Holy Spirit’s movement coupled with a faith response is the only path to God. God can use argument to do that, but no one is argued into the kingdom of God. God can use reason to clear a path, but reason never is what ultimately leads someone to God.

Faith is far more a matter of our “hearts.” Satan and demons presumably have a perfect head knowledge of God that far exceeds any human theologian who has ever lived. They would always get 100% on any test of knowledge about God. Their heads, in this respect are perfect in understanding.

Yet James 2:19 tells us they tremble before God. Is this not the point of James 2? If our faith is merely a knowledge of God, it is insufficient for salvation. “Though I have all knowledge,” Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13:2, but do not have love, my knowledge is pointless. Knowledge is thus a secondary feature of our faith, and our trust in and allegiance to God is primary. When 2 Timothy 3:16 speaks of all Scripture being God-breathed and being profitable for instruction and correction, it is not likely thinking of theology in the first place but in our faith and the way we live.

I suspect God might easily prove the divine existence to us. God might certainly do so in terms of our experience, but I suspect God could mount an irrefutable and possibly unfathomable rational argument. The problem is that our human minds are both finite and fallen. As finite, we cannot grasp the measurelessness of God’s reason. As fallen, our attempts to grasp God’s perfection will inevitably fail us to one degree or another.

The Ontological Argument

I take as a case in point the “ontological argument.” It might be advanced in several forms. Anselm’s version went something like this, in my words:

  • I can conceive of a greatest possible Being. The greatest possible Being exists in my mind.
  • But part of being the greatest possible Being means that God actually exists and is not just an idea in my head.
  • Therefore God actually exists and is not just an idea.

In my opinion, Alvin Plantinga’s more recent version of the argument is much better and clearer. I would express it in the following way:

  • There is a possible world in which God exists.
  • But if God exists in one possible world, God must exist in all possible worlds.
  • Therefore, God exists in all possible worlds, including mine.

I actually consider this a circular argument. It seems easy to say that it is possible that God exists, but the first premise is really asking whether God actually does exist. In other words, it does not prove anything. It simply poses the question of God’s existence in a way that seems at first to be less committal than it really is.

However, I suspect that God agrees with the ontological argument. As a person of faith, I believe this argument is correct. However, I believe it as a matter of faith. As a matter of reason, I do not think this argument actually proves anything, and most philosophers would agree. The problem is not God’s. The problem is that our human reason is finite.

The Cosmological Argument

So the second question that I think of when I think of the philosophy of religion is the question of whether God exists. Ultimately, as I have said, it is a matter of faith rather than proof. The opposite of faith is not reason but proof. Hebrews 1:6 says that, “without faith it is impossible to please him, for the one who comes to God must have faith that he exists and that he rewards those who diligently seek him.”

There are a number of classic arguments for the existence of God. We already mentioned the ontological argument, which goes back to Anselm in the 1000s. Perhaps the most famous argument is the “cosmological argument” or the argument from cause. Thomas Aquinas in the 1200s presented a classic version. However, I might present it something like the following:

  • The universe would seem to be a constant sequence of causes and effects.
  • This sequence does not seem to go back infinitely.
  • Therefore, there must have been a first cause to the universe.

1500 years before Aquinas, the Greek philosopher Aristotle called this cause the “Prime Mover,” the unmoved mover that set everything in motion.

In the last seventy years, this argument has become more and more scientifically compelling. In the 1950s, it was very popular to believe that matter was constantly being generated somewhere in the universe and thus that the universe need never have had a beginning. Discovery of a gradually decreasing cosmic background radiation from the early universe eventually suggested a “big bang” near the beginning of the universe.

While some Christians do not like the concept of a big bang, this hesitance is because of the time frame that is usually suggested and the fact that such a bang is often discussed within an atheistic framework. However, the idea that God caused the universe to begin at some point in the past with a bang is more or less how Christians have long interpreted Genesis 1:1. There is nothing intrinsically unChristian about the notion that the universe began suddenly at a point in time! In fact that is precisely what we believe.

Once we have suggested the universe had a Creator, we have said very little about who or what that Creator was. In the end, natural revelation (what we might infer about God by reason and observation) needs special revelation (God’s direct revelation to humanity in Christ and Scripture) to arrive at anything close to the Christian understanding of God. Arguments for the existence of God thus must play a supporting role in our understanding. They are inadequate to bring us to a full knowledge of God.

We might infer, however, that a Creator who makes the universe out of nothing, which is what Christians have historically believed, must have enough power and knowledge to create what is created. The Creator out of nothing must then have all power in relation to the universe and all knowledge of the universe’s workings. Creation out of nothing might or might not suggest a full knowledge of the future, but it certainly implies a full knowledge of the universe’s possibilities. By faith, however, Wesleyans have traditionally believed that God has all actual knowledge of the future and not merely a knowledge of all the possibilities.

The age old question, “Where then did God come from?” simply does not understand the argument above. Nothing in any of the above argument suggests that the Creator must have a cause. The cosmological argument says, “This universe must have a cause.” It says nothing about what must be for that cause. Indeed, this question confuses God (whose essence must be outside this universe) with the universe. It treats God as if God is part of the universe.

The Teleological Argument

Another longstanding argument for the existence of God is the argument from design. In the 1700s, a pastor named William Paley advanced it with the example of the eye. The eye, he argued, is far to intricate to have happened by chance. If you find a watch, you presume there was a watchmaker. So when we consider aspects of nature like the eye, we should assume that they had an intelligent Designer.

There is a clear common sense to this argument. How could we possibly explain the intricacies of nature without supposing that there was an infinitely intelligent Designer behind it? On the other hand, the theory of evolution in the late 1800s seemed to many to undermine this argument severely. Suddenly God did not seem to be necessary at all to explain the origins of complex life.

However, we do not need to fight the battle for the teleological argument over evolution. There is an even more compelling argument to be made on the level of the entire universe, and it is sometimes called the “fine tuning argument.” The fine tuning argument is a strong argument not least because its force is readily admitted by physicists who are atheists. It basically says that the laws and parameters of the universe are so finely balanced that we are either fortunate beyond all imagination or there must have been a designer.

For example, if there were more mass in the universe, the universe would have crunched before any planets let alone life could form. If there were less mass the universe would have spread so quickly that no planets let alone life could form. The balance between matter and antimatter must have been just ever so slightly off. If it had been exact, E = mc^2 and there would only be energy in the universe.

If the balance between the strong nuclear force and the electromagnetic force were different, protons would repel such that no atomic nuclei could form or electrons would be sucked into the nucleus. The same between the force of gravity and the electromagnetic force. Instead, these forces balance out perfectly for us to have atoms.

If the universe had an inverse cube law instead of an inverse square law for gravity and the electromagnetic force, atoms and planets could not have formed. If all the hydrogen had become helium in the early universe, there would be no suns. If carbon did not have precisely the energy threshhold it has to form its nucleus, we would never have had carbon to form life.

These “finely tuned” aspects of the universe go on and on. As yet, there is no clear reason for the universe to be exactly this way by chance. Indeed, those cosmologists who are atheists usually resort so some theory of a multiverse. Out of what must be an astronomical number of universe failures, we would just happen to be on the completely unfathomably lucky one that was just right, a Goldilocks of universes.

A much simpler explanation is simply to suggest that there is an intelligent Designer. Again, we may need special revelation to know the character of that Designer. For example, this argument does not necessarily suggest that God is good. For that, we may very well need Scripture.

The Moral Argument

C.S. Lewis reluctantly came to the conclusion that God exists because of what we might call the “moral argument” for the existence of God. In his autobiographical Surprised by Joy, Lewis indicates that the key moment in his return to God was when he came to a choice between a world where good and evil were not real, only figments of our imagination and a world where there was some grounding of these ideas in reality. He finds it unfathomable that they not be real. This leads him eventually back to God.

We might call this argument for God the “argument from the existence of evil.” It concedes what the 1800s thinker Friedrich Nietzsche thought, namely, that good and evil are not real but concepts that “supermen” can invent for other people and fool them into believing. Fyodor Dostoevsky, the Russian writer, had earlier gone the other way from Nietzsche, but still claiming that “If there is no God, then everything is permissible.”

Lewis and many others simply found this notion untenable, which led him eventually to believe in God as the guarantor of right and wrong. We should note that there are non-theists who have argued for the reality of good and evil apart from God’s existence. Philippa Foot and John Rawls would be two recent philosophers who tried to give a rational basis for morality apart from God. In the end neither give any absolute basis for morality in relation to an individual’s decisions.

Lewis gives a more fully formed moral argument for God’s existence in his book, Mere Christianity. I might summarize it something like the following:

  • All humans have a concept of right and wrong, even though they might differ some on the specifics.
  • There must be some grounding of this universal concept in reality.
  • This grounding is in the existence of a good God.

I will confess that, while I agree by faith that right and wrong are grounded in the goodness of God, I have never found this argument compelling as an argument. C.S. Lewis had what I might call serious “Platonic” tendencies. That is to say, he tended to see ideas as having a reality indepedent of our brains. Plato believed that true reality was the world of thought. Accordingly, our basic conceptions were not just thoughts but realities that existed apart from ourselves.

It is no coincidence that Anselm, who formulated the ontological argument, was heavily influenced by Plato. If we can conceive of God, a fundamental conception of the greatest possible Being (which is a different kind of conception than conceiving of a unicorn), then God must actually exist apart from ourselves. Lewis’ train of thought shows similar Platonic influence. If there is a universal conception of right and wrong, then these concepts must have a real existence apart from ourselves, a transcendent one that goes beyond the world of sight and touch and taste and smell.

Charles Darwin, the “father of evolution” famously suggested that morality evolved among humans as an advantage to survival. Many others have taken up that line of thinking since. While I believe by faith that God grounds morality, I am not sure that I can prove this belief. It remains for me a matter of what I consider reasonable faith rather than proof.

Experiences of God

For the vast majority of Christians, the strongest personal argument for God’s existence is either a personal encounter with God or a faith in the accounts of others having personal encounters with God, not least in the Bible. An old hymn says, “You ask me how I know he lives? He lives within my heart.” A personal encounter with God and Christ is a very strong personal argument for God’s existence that is difficult to refute.

A former seminary professor of mine hated this hymn. He would respond that we know Jesus lives “because of the testimony of the apostles.” We will take up that argument for Jesus’ resurrection in a moment. We will also mention the argument from miracles in a moment.

Beyond any individual experience of God I might have are the countless testimonies of encounters with God that others have given throughout the centuries, including all those testimonies in Scripture. A very, very large number of people have believed themselves to have encountered God. If even half of these encounters were mistaken, how do we account for such a pervasive sense of divine encounter in the history of humanity?

Such transcendent experiences are so common that even those who do not have a belief in the Christian God or in a personal God have retained a sense of transcendent spirituality. Even the force of Star Wars gets at such a common sense that there are forces beyond those we learn in a physics class. If this sense of higher powers is coupled with the cosmological and teleological arguments above, we begin to get a sense of a personal divine power.


The common definition of a miracle is something that happens that seemed highly unlikely, almost impossible to happen. That is not the technical definition of a miracle. A miracle in the philosophical sense is something that is actually impossible that happens. It is an event that stands outside the cause and effect chain of the world. A miracle would be if someone who was truly dead for over a day came back to life.

There are many, many people who have made such claims throughout history and in the Bible. If there were five loaves of bread and two fishes and Jesus was able to feed five thousand people full with them by multiplying them, that would be a miracle. Walking on water or turning water into wine, these are impossible actions. They are miracles. A check coming just in time on the day you needed it, that could be a miracle behind the scenes but it could also be a great coincidence. It was not something that was impossible to occur.

If you observe a miracle done in Jesus’ name, that is a very compelling argument for God’s existence. Many, many individuals have claimed to have seen or experienced such miracles.

The Resurrection

The most important miracle, indeed the foundational miracle of Christianity, is the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. We cannot prove the resurrection of Jesus–it is an inductive argument and thus open-ended. However, we can make an argument that belief in the resurrection of Jesus is very reasonable if we allow for the possibility of miracles.

There are, of course, those who do not allow for the possibility of miracles. We think here especially of David Hume in the 1700s, who made the assumption that everything happens on the basis of cause and effect and thus that miracles are impossible a priori (before even looking at any claims that one might have happened). Hume had a “presupposition” that miracles could not happen.

This is an extremely flimsy claim. He simply dismisses the possibility on the basis of assumption. His argument amounts to a feeling. “Well, I’ve never seen a miracle” or “Smart people don’t believe in miracles.” These are not arguments, they are condescending assumptions without any proof whatsoever. Show me a real argument Mr. Hume. Disprove all the claims of miracles that have occurred throughout history. If even one miracle slips through, then your arrogant dismissal proves to be the ignorant assumption.

No, any person who is really interested in knowing what is true must allow for the possibility both of the supernatural and of miracles. That allowance does not prove they happen. It simply is the required openness of inductive reasoning.

The argument for the historicity of the resurrection is generally two prong. The first part is the empty tomb. They second has to do with eyewitnesses.

The empty tomb is the unanimous testimony of the ancient world and it is a very reasonable conclusion given the New Testament. All four Gospels assume an empty tomb. The women are unable to find the body. Given the status of women in that world, someone making the story up would surely not have invented women discovering the empty tomb, since they were not considered reliable sources of information.

The earliest argument we have against the resurrection is in Matthew 28 where there is a rumor that the disciples stole Jesus’ body. Note that this rumor assumes that there is no body. So even those who did not believe in the resurrection conceded that there was no body and an empty tomb.

It would be difficult to account for the resurrection believe of the early church if Jesus’ body could be located. These individuals were apparently willing to die for their beliefs. The apostle Paul is a case in point. 2 Corinthians 11-12 tell of the persecution and suffering he endured as he shared the good news around the world. It seems unlikely that he would endure such pain if he were not fully convinced of Jesus’ resurrection, a belief that seems doubtful if the location of Jesus’ body were known or highly in dispute.

So Jesus’ body was missing. We couple this fact with the fact that a host of people testified to seeing Jesus alive after his death. 1 Corinthians 15 gives a very early list within the lifetime of most of the witnesses. The Corinthians loved to question Paul, but we have no evidence that this list was contested by them or anyone in the early church. It has a historical ring of truth to it.

Paul points first to Peter, then the other inner circle of disciples, who believed that they saw Jesus alive after his death. Tradition suggests that almost all of these individuals were willing to die for that belief. If they were not strongly convinced of the resurrection, it is doubtful they would have made such a sacrifice. Over 500 people at once are mentioned in 1 Corinthians 15. He so much as says, “Check my references.” Then of course there was Paul himself. It is unreasonable to think that he was anything but fully convinced he had seen Jesus alive.

So we have an empty tomb and we have hundreds of people convinced they have seen Jesus alive. If you allow for the possibility of resurrections, this would seem to be an extremely strong case. And if Jesus rose from the dead, there is a strong argument for the existence of the God who raised Jesus from the dead.

The Soul-Making Explanation for Suffering

The third key question that the philosophy of religion asks is why God allows evil and suffering to persist in the world if God is truly good. This is the problem of evil and suffering. The question goes something like the following:

  • A good God would want to end evil and suffering.
  • An all-powerful God could end evil and suffering.
  • Then why does God not stop evil and suffering?

Two key answers have been given over the last 2000 years. The first is what we might call the “soul-making theodicy,” where a theodicy is an explanation for how God can be just when he allows evil and suffering. We associate it with a Christian named Irenaeus in the 100s AD. It is basically summed up as “no pain no gain” or, to borrow a phrase from Nietzsche, “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

The sense is that suffering and particular present challenges to us that have the potential to help us grow in character. A body that never moves will atrophy and become weaker and weaker. However, exercise helps a body grow stronger. Moderate tearing down of the muscles results in them becoming stronger.

Accordingly, a world without serious multiple choices is not a world where we might easily become morally better. Rather, as we face moral challenges, we become stronger in our “souls.” When we face suffering, we can either wither away or rise to the challenge, by God’s grace and with the help of the Holy Spirit. Our “souls” are made stronger. The world of pain and suffering is like a moral workout gym. In The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis spoke of the chisel of God whose blows hurt so much but hold the possibility of making us into beautiful moral creatures.

The Free Will Explanation for Evil

The second approach to the problem of evil came from Augustine in the 400s. We might call it the free-will theodicy. In this approach, God gave Adam and Eve a free choice between good and evil because a world in which we are free to make that choice is a better world than one in which we are forced to be good. [1]

However, having given that choice to Adam and Eve, they chose poorly. As a result, evil is in the world. Augustine popularized the idea of The Fall, where the power of Sin over the world was introduced by Adam’s sin. Similarly, suffering entered the world through Adam’s sin.

Augustine’s theodicy distances God from the evil and suffering world by placing the blame on humanity itself, on Adam in particular. God does not dictate that evil must come into being. God creates a good world where evil is possible. Adam–and perhaps Satan–is then responsible for the specific existence of evil. [2]

The Augustinian approach to the problem of evil has been particularly important in the Wesleyan tradition. Some hyper-Calvinists have taken John Calvin (1500s) beyond his own teaching to see God predestining both Satan and Adam to sin. This approach is problematic for Wesleyans because it makes God directly responsible for evil. [3]

For Wesleyans, evil is a matter of the permissive will of God, things God allows, rather than the directive will of God, things God more or less commands. Wesleyans would also extend the free will theodicy beyond Adam. Wesley taught that the “prevenient grace” of God empowers us to be able to choose or not choose God individually even today. In that sense, the existence of evil today–and the suffering caused by evil–is not simply Adam’s fault but the fault of each individual who does not choose God throughout history. This is a far more satisfactory answer to the question than Augustine’s solution in itself.

What is good and evil?

Lurking in the discussion above is of course the question of exactly what good and evil even are. Augustine discussed them in terms of twisting a good end. However, given his Platonic tendencies, I wonder if his thinking comes perilously close to thinking of good as a thing. The Neoplatonism he drew on did indeed see evil as the absence of light, the absence of good.

The Bible presents love as the ultimate criteria of good and evil. When asked to summarize the commandments of God, Jesus summed them up as to love God and to love neighbor (Matthew 22). All of God’s commands fit within one or another of these categories, and the primary way we demonstrate love of God is by loving others, including our enemies.

Love here is not a feeling. It is not even “liking” someone. In relation to others, it is an orientation of attitude and action that acts in a way that is meant to benefit the other. In relation to God, it is a complete recognition of ultimate authority and an alligiance to God’s lordship. These two loves never contradict or conflict with each other.

Evil is thus any intentionality that is contrary to love of the other. Evil is any intentionality in relation to God that is contrary to allegiance to him. Evil thus existence within the sphere of human intentionality. It is not a thing. It is an intentionality contrary to love.

Adam and Jesus could be tempted because a good desire was directed toward an inappropriate object. In Adam’s case, the desire for knowledge and excelling were good but directed toward a forbidden object. In Jesus’ case, he wanted to avoid suffering in the Garden, a perfectly healthy desire, but in a context that would have gone against the will of God the Father and his love of humanity. A sinful nature is thus not a prerequisite for temptation.

Suffering is pain, which is understandable. It is not good or evil in itself. It only becomes evil when an intelligence chooses to inflict or allow it in an unloving way. In the case of God, we assume that God only allows suffering when it serves a greater good.

A Wesleyan Answer to Evil and Suffering

We can synthesize the various answers above into a coherent Wesleyan approach to the question of evil and suffering. We might summarize it in the following points:

  • God created a world with the possibility of evil and suffering. He did not directly create evil but the possibility of evil.
  • A world with moral choice is a good world. A world with suffering is not necessarily a bad world if that suffering brings about good. The creation of a world with these possibilities thus does not contradict the claim that God is good and loving. A hyper-Calvinist view, however, virtually equates God with Satan.
  • The power of Sin came over the world because of Adam’s sin, with Adam as the first human. The theory of evolution, if accepted, would require some modifications which I might discuss in the next entry.
  • All human beings are presented by God with a similar moral choice to Adam. The prevenient grace of the Spirit gives every person a choice at some point to choose God. That choice brings the possibility of good for all, as well as choice for evil.
  • A good deal of human suffering results from the evil choices of human beings. In general, suffering does pose the possibility for “soul-growth.” Suffering in itself is thus morally neutral.
  • We conclude that evil and suffering can exist even though God is all-good and all-powerful.

Christians also believe that Christ will return at some point of history and bring evil intentionality to an end. Scripture also indicates that suffering will end at that point (1 Cor. 15).

[1] Later, in the 1700s, Gottfried Leibniz would argue that this is the best of all possible worlds. He could not conceive that God could create any world but the best. It is difficult to know, however, what the “best” even means in the context of creation out of nothing. If God creates universes out of nothing, then surely whatever God creates would be the best for that universe by God’s fiat.

[2] See Greg Boyd’s Satan and the Problem of Evil for a more thorough exploration of Satan as the primary culprit for suffering and evil.

[3] The Calvinist distinction between primary and secondary causes is a distinction without a difference. Secondary causes for Calvinists amount simply to things God does through others.


Martin LaBar said...

Thanks for this deep and broad material!

In the second paragraph under "The Cosmological Argument" you put "clause," when you must have meant "cause."

Ken Schenck said...