Sunday, July 7, 2013

Detecting and Finding God

 (Last updated/edited 6/23/14)

This blog should be read in conjunction with my other blog HERE.

Some theologians like Gordon Clark point out that (assuming the concept of God is logically coherent) it would be difficult to disprove the existence of God since it would be like trying to prove that there is no naturally buried gold in Alaska. To prove that there IS natural gold buried in Alaska would be as simple as finding said gold. It might be found one foot away and one inch deep from where you first started digging. However, to prove there is NO gold in Alaska, one would have to search all of Alaska and then, after that exhaustive (LITERALLY, *g*) inductive search could one finally make the claim with certainty that there is no gold buried in Alaska. However, most modern atheists don't believe they need to disprove the existence of God since they claim the burden of proof is on those who assert God DOES exist.

According to a widely believed story, the great atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell was once asked what he would say if he found himself standing before God on Judgement Day and God asked him, "Why didn’t you believe in Me?" Russell replied, "I would say, ‘Not enough evidence, God!  Not enough evidence!'"

Atheists also like to quote W.K. Clifford's maxim, "[I]t is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence." However, how much evidence is "sufficient"? Must the evidence be of such a kind and such a degree that it forces/compels one to believe in the existence of God in order for it to be "sufficient" and for human beings to be morally responsible before God? Why assume that?

Also, is it even possible to inductively prove with apodictic certainty that God exists? Isn't it logically possible for even the angels and saints in heaven to rationally speculate (assuming we're limiting ourselves to inductive reasoning at present and ignoring issues like the Inner Testimony of the Holy Spirit) that they might be in a computer simulation or that there might be a greater God who is above and more powerful than the one they have been worshipping? It seems that no matter how many demonstrations of His power and wisdom God may provide finite creatures, those finite creatures can only experience and examine the demonstrations in a finite way. Also, since (as the saying goes)  "the finite cannot contain the infinite," no amount of direct experience of God could lead one to apodictic certainty that it's an experience of the one true and greatest God. Furthermore, any sentient being who lacks omniscience could always question the veridical nature of his/her conscious experiences.

How then can theists solve these problems?

As a Calvinist, I can only speak as a Calvinist. Calvinists surmount these problems by the Biblically derived teachings of election, regeneration, the testimony of the Holy Spirit, and the self-attesting nature of Scripture. These are in addition to other standard/common Christian beliefs about our mental faculties being designed by God for rationality, our ability to acquire information, the general reliability of our sense perceptions, of our brains, bodies, minds and environment being adapted to one another etc.

According to Calvinism, God elected some humans to salvation "before" the creation of the world, and in time God regenerates them by enabling them to be able to understand and accept spiritual truth. Then, by the self-authenticating internal testimony of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of the elect coupled with the external testimony of Scripture (or Scriptural truth if one doesn't have access to the Bible) elect believers can know with fallible but yet sufficient certainty that Christianity is true.

[Historically, there has been disagreement among Calvinists about the nature of "assurance". Specifically, whether Christians can have an infallible certainty of their gracious state (and therefore by extension their election). This disagreement seems to have implications regarding the nature of the universal knowledge of God, whether it's actual and whether it's infallible.]

As one notable Calvinist put it, "I believe in this infallible book, in the last analysis, because 'of the inward work of the Holy Spirit, bearing witness by and with the word in my heart.' " [alluding to the WCF]

Does that mean that humans can't affect their eternal destinies by looking for God and examining the various evidences for God? No, it doesn't. One cannot change their pre-ordained destiny, but one can affect it because God ordains both the ends as well as the means; all the while upholding causal relations. In other words, God providentially predestines not only what will happen, but how they will happen.

So, if God ordained that a person will be saved, then God also ordained the means to their salvation. That can include things like their 1. seeking for God, 2. examining the evidences, 3. praying, 4. reading the Bible, 5. studying apologetics et cetera.

It will be argued, "Sure, God may also ordain the means, but people will not actually seek God unless and until God first regenerates them so that they can genuinely and sincerely seek after God." The charges and assumptions being, that it's not possible for people to initiate a search for God. And that therefore there's no point in admonishing people to search for God. Also, unless they first have reason to believe they are regenerated (and/or numbered among the elect), they have no reason to have confidence or expectation that their search will be fruitful and that they will, in the end, actually find God. But those are false inferences. God's promise that those who sincerely seek Him will find Him stand (e.g. James 4:8; John 6:37b; Matt. 11:28-30; Isa. 55:6-7; Jer. 29:13; Ps. 145:18; cf. James 1:8.; Luke 11:9-10; Heb. 11:6). That's true whether one is regenerated or not. Moreover, God doesn't require either the elect or non-elect to know they are regenerated or elect before they can seek after Him. Humans are free moral agents (even if they don't have libertarian free wills as Calvinism implies). Being free moral agents created by God, all humans have the duty to seek after God and believe in Him regardless of the possibility of their success in that search.

Given Calvinism, both the elect and non-elect can "search" for God, but only the elect will sincerely, honestly and persistently search for Him because of regeneration. Since a knowledge of one's regeneration isn't essential to saving faith, everyone can have personal psychological hope that they might find God by searching for Him.

Therefore, regarding those who are currently non-Christians, for all they know, God will use their search for Him (whether it's currently sincere or insincere) to eventually find Him. Their search which may have begun insincerely may end up being sincere by the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit. So, we are all without excuse if we fail to search for God.

According to general Evangelical Christianity (whether Calvinist, Arminian, Lutheran etc.), there is sufficient evidence for God's existence in many fields and sources of inquiry and experience. Among Evangelicals there is disagreement as to what that sufficiency entails. By "sufficient" most Evangelicals mean there is enough evidence so that God's existence not only can be detected, but that it's sufficiently clear and pervasive that all humans are without excuse. Some Calvinists even insist that the evidence for God's existence cannot be escaped and that it is necessarily the case that all humans know God. That is, that all humans directly know that God their Creator, whom they are accountable to, exists. While I'm open to that position (being a Van Tillian apologetically), my tentative/provisional position is that all humans existentially know that God exists, even if they don't necessarily or always rationally know (on the surface of their consciousnesses) that God exists. [See the following links for an article by Paul Manata that has led me to no longer dogmatically hold the traditional Van Tillian view that all human beings actually know God. The links are HERE or HERE of the same article. It caused quite a stir in the Van Tillian community, e.g. HERE]

This is where certain quotes from Blaise Pascal are useful for the Christian apologist/evangelist and the non-Christian seeker. Here are those quotes from his Pensées:

Willing to appear openly to those who seek him with all their heart, and to be hidden from those who flee from him with all their heart, God so regulates the knowledge of himself that he has given indications [or "signs"] of himself which are visible to those who seek him and not to those who do not seek him. There is enough light for those to see who only desire to see, and enough obscurity for those who have a contrary disposition.

Elsewhere in his Pensées he wrote:

The prophecies, the very miracles and proofs of our religion, are not of such a nature that they can be said to be absolutely convincing. But they are also of such a kind that it cannot be said that it is unreasonable to believe them. Thus there is both evidence and obscurity to enlighten some and confuse others. But the evidence is such that it surpasses, or at least equals, the evidence to the contrary; so that it is not reason which can determine men not to follow it, and thus it can only be lust or malice of heart. And by this means there is sufficient evidence to condemn, and insufficient to convince; so that it appears in those who follow it, that it is grace, and not reason, which makes them follow it; and in those who shun it, that it is lust, not reason, which makes them shun it. [bold used for emphasis by me]

According to these quotes, the disposition of the seeker is a determining factor as to whether people will actually find God. The persuasiveness of the evidence is "in the heart of the beholder." A useful analogy would be the multiple possible perceptions of optical illusions. For example, is the picture below that of an old or young woman? Depending on one's neurological "wiring", one will naturally see a young or old woman upon first encountering this classic illusion.

 Another analogy that can help explain how one's attitude, point of view and disposition can influence the interpretation of the evidence is the old "Half Full or Half Empty" rhetorical question.

It can also be explained in this following anonymous story.

The Cricket

A Native American and his friend were in downtown New York City, walking near Times Square in Manhattan. It was during the noon lunch hour and the streets were filled with people. Cars were honking their horns, taxicabs were squealing around corners, sirens were wailing, and the sounds of the city were almost deafening. Suddenly, the Native American said, "I hear a cricket."

His friend said, "What? You must be crazy. You couldn't possibly hear a cricket in all of this noise!"

"No, I'm sure of it," the Native American said, "I heard a cricket."

"That's crazy," said the friend.

The Native American listened carefully for a moment, and then walked across the street to a big cement planter where some shrubs were growing. He looked into the bushes, beneath the branches, and sure enough, he located a small cricket. His friend was utterly amazed.

"That's incredible," said his friend. "You must have super-human ears!"

"No," said the Native American. "My ears are no different from yours. It all depends on what you're listening for."

"But that can't be!" said the friend. "I could never hear a cricket in this noise."

"Yes, it's true," came the reply. "It depends on what is really important to you. Here, let me show you."

He reached into his pocket, pulled out a few coins, and discreetly dropped them on the sidewalk. And then, with the noise of the crowded street still blaring in their ears, they noticed every head within twenty feet turn and look to see if the money that tinkled on the pavement was theirs.

"See what I mean?" asked the Native American. "It all depends on what's important to you."

It's true that for Calvinists, we believe regeneration by God is what provides the disposition to be convinced by the evidence and to believe. But as I explained above, we are all naturally able to "search" for God in some sense and therefore are without excuse if we fail to search or stop searching because there is sufficient evidence (at the very least) in General Revelation. And since there are plenty of pragmatic and prudential reasons for believing in God, or at least to continue seeking after God for one's entire life even if the various rational arguments (thus far presented) for God's existence (allegedly) fail. See my A Rational, Pragmatic and Prudential Argument for Believing in God 

In his An Introduction to Systematic Theology Cornelius Van Til wrote:

That even Reformed philosophers and theologians do not always make full use of the riches found in Calvin's Institutes may be briefly pointed out by a reference to the work of Gordon H. Clark, A Christian Philosohy of Education. He says that the position of the atheist and pantheist in actually or virtually denying that there is a Creator is untenable. If a discoverer of an uninhabited island were to search its confines for a particular form of animal life, he might fail to find it. [He then quotes Gordon Clark]
He could not be sure, however that the particular animal had never lived on the island, because, even though the search had been diligent, still tomorrow the remains might be discovered. Similarly, it is clear that no finite amount of searching could rationally lead one to deny the existence of God. During the time of the atheist's investigation of this earth, it just might be that God was hiding on the other side of the moon, and if some rocket should take the atheist to the moon, there is no reason to hold that God might not go over to Jupiter–for the express purpose of inconveniencing the atheist.
[Van Til goes on to comment] But a God who can thus escape to the moon or to Jupiter is not inconveniencing the atheist at all. On the contrary, he shows himself to be so finite, so insignificant, that the atheist can cover the whole earth without being confronted by him [i.e.  God]. This is the exact reverse of the teaching of Calvin, based on Paul, that God is divinity and power [ I suspect this is a typo and should read "that God's divinity and power" ], being always and everywhere so obviously present that he who says there is no God is a fool. The foolishness of the denial of the Creator lies precisely in the fact that this Creator confronts man in every fact so that no fact has any meaning for man except it be seen as God's creation. [pages 173-174 2nd edition edited by William Edgar; bold used for emphasis by me]
 I agree with Van Til that the evidence for God's existence is sufficient that one cannot escape being confronted with evidence for God's existence. However, I'm not so sure that all humans actually rationally know that God exists, even if I am certainly persuaded that they OUGHT to know that He exists because of the evidence in general revelation (both within them and external to them), not to mention the self-attesting evidence of special revelation found in the Bible (of which, admittedly, not everyone is exposed to). So, even if it is the case that not all men know that God exists, they nevertheless ought to know God exists since there is the moral category of culpable ignorance as well as vincible ignorance. This doesn't contradict my earlier statement that while not all men necessarily know rationally that God exists, they do so existentially.

And so, it is logically possible for the evidence for God to be sufficiently clear that all should and could know that God exists, and yet at the same time the evidence could be sufficiently vague enough (by God's design) so that God's existence is not rationally coercive.

A final and highly important consideration must also be factored into the issue of the detection and finding of God. It is the issue of the effects of the Fall on people's hearts and minds. The three main branches of Christianity (Catholicism, Protestantism, Orthodoxy, not to mention Anabaptism and the various other ancient Catholic churches etc.) differ on the nature of Original Sin and depravity (e.g. it's effects and whether they are passed on or not et cetera). The issues are complex and can't be dealt with here. But a common thread in the various views is that somehow sin affects our ability and/or willingness to accept God's existence.

In the history of Christianity there have been 4 basic views on the nature of our receptivity to God. I'll summarize (maybe oversimplify) them here:

1. Pelagian view

2. Semi-Pelagian view

3. Prevenient Grace or Initiating Grace view

4. Sufficient Grace or Efficacious Grace view

1. The Pelagian view teaches that all humans are born in the moral state Adam was created in. According to this view, people can live in such a way that they can both merit and earn salvation by their own works apart from the salvation provided in Christ. The grace of God can help and aid in one's salvation, but it's not absolutely necessary. This view has been universally and categorically rejected by the Christian church.

2. The Semi-Pelagian view teaches that God's grace is absolutely necessary for salvation (unlike Pelagianism). People cannot be saved without the grace of God. People do need God's grace, however they are already free enough morally to exercise their free wills to accept or reject God's grace for salvation apart from the internal work of prevenient grace taking the first step. In Semi-Pelagianism, God OR MAN can initiate man's salvation. That is to say, man can, of himself, respond to God's grace and offer of salvation apart from God's grace making the first step and initiating salvation. God's grace (in this view) doesn't need to first work in a person to draw them to a response to God. Sometimes Semi-Pelagianism is interpreted to mean that ONLY man can initiate his salvation. But historically Semi-Pelagianism's error was more modest than that. Technically, Semi-Pelagianism doesn't deny that God could (and sometimes does) initiate salvation. The error of Semi-Pelagianism is the idea that SOMETIMES MAN CAN INITIATE his salvation by his free will response to offered grace. Semi-Pelagianism was rejected at the (2nd) Council of Orange (in 529 A.D.). The decrees and teaching of Orange were somehow lost for most of the Middle Ages but approximately around the time of the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation they were rediscovered. And so now, at the present time, Catholicism, most branches of Protestantism, Eastern Orthodoxy (and others) all reject Semi-Pelagianism and Pelagianism. In summary, the error of Semi-Pelagianism is NOT that it denies the necessity of subsequent grace (or  co-operating grace in Catholicism) in living the Christian life (after becoming a Christian). Rather, the Semi-Pelagian error is in denying the NECESSITY of initiating/prevenient grace (or operating grace in Catholicism) in order to become a Christian. Here's a link to Arminian Roger Olson's blog on Semi-Pelagianism and Prevenient Grace.

 [Nota Bene: I used the phrase "becoming a Christian" rather than "conversion" because "becoming a Christian" is the more general and all encompassing phrase. Becoming a Christian is understood differently by different denominations since some believe children become Christians upon infant baptism, while others believe it requires conscious and intentional conversion. As a credobaptist Protestant, I believe in the latter (i.e. conversion). Whereas a Catholic would believe there is initiating grace infused during infant baptism. For adult converts, Catholics would agree that before the person believed on Christ, God's initiating and operating grace was first working in the person which lead the person to be able to freely convert. Besides the various Catholic denominations, there are also Protestant denominations that practice infant baptism and so sometimes also believe prevenient grace is involved.]

The following TWO views correctly reject the idea that SOMETIMES man can initiate his salvation, or that ONLY man can initiate salvation. The following two views affirm that ONLY GOD can initiate salvation.

 3. The Prevenient Grace (or Initiating or Enabling Grace) view is the majority view in the Church. Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy and most Protestants and Evangelicals (e.g. Arminians and other non-Calvinists) hold to this view. It teaches that God's grace must first work in the hearts of people before they can then freely accept God's grace for salvation (hence the word "initiating" and the "pre" in the word "prevenient"). It's a pre-regenerating form of grace. While Catholics believe one can merit one's salvation (by the enablement of grace), and Evangelicals deny it can be merited, both Catholics and Evangelicals deny one can earn or strictly merit salvation (since they both reject Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism). For Evangelicals who hold to prevenient grace the Fall wounded men's minds and wills such that God's grace must first heal it so that it can now freely receive or reject God's free offer of salvation. Prevenient grace doesn't leave men merely indifferent or neutral. It also draws and woos people to respond to God's grace. As Roger Olson described it, " is an operation of the Holy Spirit that frees the sinner’s will from bondage to sin and convicts, calls, illumines and enables the sinner to respond to the gospel call with repentance and faith (conversion)."

4. The Sufficient Grace or Efficacious Grace view is the view that Calvinists hold. Calvinism goes further than (far beyond) the prevenient grace view and says that not only is God's grace necessary, it's also sufficient. That when God begins a work of salvific grace in a person, that person  will definitely, certaintly and inexorably come to saving faith in Christ and be saved. This is my view. It is usually considered a form of Augustinianism. While prevenient grace is sometimes called a form of Semi-Pelagianism, I personally think that's a poor label. In my opinion, it's erroneous to call Prevenient Grace a form of Semi-Pelagianism. Unfortunately, many of my fellow Calvinists do so. I think the prevenient grace view should be called a form of Semi-Augustianism. Either that or call it Augustinianism and the Calvinist View Ultra-Augustinianism (or Supra-Augustinianism) since there are facets of Calvinistic theology that go way beyond Aurelius Augustine's own doctrines. Rather than the human search for God as the reason why some humans find God, in Calvinism God is ultimately the one who "finds" human beings (i.e. reveals Himself to them) [cf. Rom. 10:20].

Both Calvinistic Evangelicals and (most) Non-Calvinistic Evangelicals (e.g. Arminians) believe that humans are so depraved (apart from grace) that they suppress the evidence for God's existence because there is a universal (but unnaturally natural) aversion to God, His Holiness and His commandments/requirements. So that has bearing on the issue of the "sufficiency" of the evidence for God's existence. For many Arminian-like Evangelicals, they believe that God is constantly wooing non-Christians by his Prevenient Grace, but because of their depravity and their use of the libertarian free wills they often continue to suppress the evidence for God in their hearts and so continue to reject God (even though Prevenient Grace has enabled them now to freely accept or reject God's offered salvation since it offset the effects of natural depravity). Calvinists on the other hand believe that all humans are beneficiaries of Common Grace, but that only God's redemptive Special Grace is sufficient to overcome natural depravity. That is why for the Calvinist depravity is "Total" while for the Arminian it is not "Total" since it teaches that human free will coupled with prevenient grace is sufficient to overcome depravity if people properly apply their free wills aided by grace.

To sum up, options #3 and #4 are within the pale of Christian orthodoxy and should be factored into the issue of the possible detection and discovery of God along with whether there is "sufficient" evidence for God's existence.

 I recommend another of my blogs where I explore possible reasons why God might intentionally make His existence somewhat vague: "Unveiling" The Hiddenness of God


  1. I wrote in the comments of another blog the following:

    You see, one cannot have both proof and faith. The two, as with many other ideas I've mentioned, are mutually exclusive. The reason for this is that faith is the belief in something which cannot be proven, so if you have proof you can't have faith because proof negates faith. No one needs faith to believe that which is proven to be true. [Quoting atheist Casper Rigsby]

    That's a false dilemma/dichotomy. Between "faith" and "proof" there can be "evidence." Evidence that doesn't rise to the level of absolute apodictic proof. In which case, one can still exercise faith in the presence of evidence.

    Moreover, as I understand it, according to some versions of Van Tillian presuppositionalism Scripture is self-attesting such that Scripture does rise to the level of proof. Since the Self-Testimony of God (who is omniscient and cannot lie) is the greatest and most certain foundation and bedrock for belief. Faith in this view is not belief contrary to evidence, or in the absence of evidence, or even balanced evidence for or against the Christian faith. Rather, Faith in this view is defined as believing in God's necessarily true Self-Testimony. In which case, faith isn't contrasted with proof, but faith is believing WITH absolute proof, namely the testimony of God which is necessarily true and the greatest evidence and proof of all. The sensus divinitatis, the work of the law in the heart and the (non-redemptive) *external* testimony of the Holy Spirit ought to bring everyone who is fortunate enough to be exposed to special revelation [not all are] to inevitably become convinced of the truth of Christianity. But sin prevents that (and so long as the Holy Spirit's sovereign testimony remains external and not internal). So while Casper Rigsby contrasts and opposes faith and (or versus) proof, for some Van Tillians, faith and proof perfectly agree. Faith is believing absolute proof.

    [continued in next post]

    1. I take the Van Tillian view, but I don't think that this contradicts the idea that outside of Scripture God has limited the amount of extra-Biblical evidence so that such external evidence is not rationally coercive. Because, while God ordains all things that come to pass, most human decisions are ordained by God to be made by humans in a rational or semi-rational way. Which means, if God made the extra-Biblical evidence rationally coercive for everyone then it would be very difficult or impossible for anyone to not believe in God (whether regenerately or unregenerately/nominally). I believe God limits the extra-Biblical evidence for providential and historical reasons. For example, to make room for the exercise/development of Christian virtues (like trust [which is a different kind of faith that's well described in Mere Christianity]) and non-Christian expression of total depravity; make room for the strict merit of condemnation and graciously "merited" Christian rewards; make room for election and reprobation; for grace and justice etc. Calvinism can encompass (but isn't limited to) a Soul-Making theodicy.

      As Pascal wrote: The prophecies, the very miracles and proofs of our religion, are not of such a nature that they can be said to be absolutely convincing. But they are also of such a kind that it cannot be said that it is unreasonable to believe them. Thus there is both evidence and obscurity to enlighten some and confuse others. But the evidence is such that it surpasses, or at least equals, the evidence to the contrary; so that it is not reason which can determine men not to follow it, and thus it can only be lust or malice of heart. And by this means there is sufficient evidence to condemn, and insufficient to convince; so that it appears in those who follow it, that it is grace, and not reason, which makes them follow it; and in those who shun it, that it is lust, not reason, which makes them shun it.